When Penny Sweet purchased two boxes of Magnetix toys from the supermarket for her son’s 10th birthday in 2005, she could not have imagined that the building sets would cause lethal injury to her 22-month-old son Kenny, comparable to a gunshot or stab wound. But that is exactly what happened.
Kenny was not allowed to be in the room when his older siblings played with the small plastic pieces that encased powerful magnets because they were a potential choking hazard to the young boy. But what the family did not realize was that some of the plastic pieces broke open, spilling small, powerful magnets into the carpet, where they could remain unnoticed by an adult or older child but easily found and swallowed by a curious toddler.
Kenny fell ill not long after ingesting the magnets. At first, his parents thought he had caught a stomach bug. An x-ray revealed an object so large doctors believed it must have been outside of the body. What the Sweets and the doctors did not know was that nine tiny magnets had attached together in Kenny’s intestines and were slowly cutting off the blood supply to parts of his bowels, causing the tissue to die and allowing gangrene to set in. He died that night.
Following the death of their son, the Sweets filed a complaint with the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission). The toy’s manufacturer, Mega Bloks, released a statement saying it had “no record or knowledge of a similar occurrence involving this toy.” In fact, the company had received several complaints of magnets falling out of the plastic pieces and knew of at least one case in which a 10-year-old had suffered life-threatening intestinal injuries after ingesting magnets from the toy.
In early 2006, four-year-old Kyle Booke fell ill to a massive infection. He had swallowed magnets from a Magnetix set his grandmother had bought him for Christmas. The magnets tore open his intestines, spilling bacteria into his stomach and causing a massive infection. Doctors were forced to leave the wound open for nearly three weeks in order to vacuum infected material out of Kyle’s abdomen as he recovered. It was while he was in hospital that his mother first saw the news on a hospital television that Magnetix were being recalled.
More than three million Magnetix sets sat on store shelves for the four months between Kenny Sweet’s death and Kyle Booke’s hospitalization. By the time the CPSC announced a voluntary recall of the product in March 2006, the agency had received notice of 34 injuries to children caused by the toy. At least 15 of those injuries occurred after Kenny died.
Even after the recall there were problems. Mega Bloks announced it had strengthened the toy and it was now safe to sell once again, but offered no way of telling which sets of Magnetix were improved. Retailers were confused and the unsafe toys often remained on the shelves. In February 2007, three-year-old Tegan Leisy needed eight inches of his intestines removed after swallowing magnets from his brother’s four Magnetix sets. All the sets had been bought after the recall, but some were the old versions of the toy. Magnets fell out of both old and improved versions.
In April 2007, the CPSC expanded the recall to cover an additional four million Magnetix sets, and many retailers began halting sales altogether. However, the toys were not gone for long. By the 2008 Christmas shopping season, Mega Brands had brought the toy back under its new name – MagNext.
Magnetic Polly Pocket Toys
In February 2006, attorney Gordon Tabor alerted Mattel that his seven-year-old client had to undergo emergency surgery after swallowing magnets from a Polly Pocket toy. The magnets connected inside her intestines, creating a deadly obstruction. It took Mattel a year and a half to alert parents and issue of recall of 18.2 million Polly Pocket, Doggie Day Care, Batman, Barbie, and One Piece toys containing magnets that can connect across intestines and “rip through a child’s bowels like a gunshot.” Mattel executives knew from their own testing that magnets were coming loose in their toys, but did not regard it as a safety issue.
After CPSC received 170 reports of the magnets coming loose, and at least three reports of children requiring surgery, the agency persuaded Mattel to recall some, but not all, the toys. In November 2006, 2.4 million units were recalled. However, the CPSC continued to receive hundreds of reports of magnets coming loose from other units. It took many more meetings, in some of which graphic medical evidence of the damage being done to children was shown, before Mattel executives finally agreed to recall the toys in August of 2007.
As magnet technology has developed, there has been a dramatic increase in recalls involving magnets, including:
- In May 2010, 175,000 Buckyballs sets – named as the toy of the year by Rolling Stone – were recalled because the minimum age of use was incorrectly labeled. Buckyballs feature 216 powerful magnetic balls that can be molded to form a variety of shapes.
- In February 2008, 250,000 Chinese-made “Fun ‘n Safe” magnetic dart boards were recalled because of the risk of tiny magnets falling out of the darts. A further 800,000 Magnetic Dart Boards from a different manufacturer were recalled later that year.
- In March 2008, Mega Brands – the same manufacturer behind the deadly Magnetix toy – was forced to recall 1.3 million MagnaMan action figures. The figures had body parts that attached with magnets, and which the
CPSC reported were prone to falling out.
- In 2008, 130,000 Chinese-made Battat Magnabild construction sets were recalled. The sets contained 60 one-inch magnets and 48 small balls, which were used to make structures of varying shapes, but which were prone to fall out.
More than 30,000 tons of toys enter the United States annually. Only a tiny fraction of these imports will ever be checked by what amounts to a handful of inspectors. Increasingly, toys are coming from foreign manufacturers that have at times shown a callous disregard for the safety of consumers.
This state of affairs has left children more at risk from toys than ever before. While parents
may know to check for sharp pieces or small objects, no parent can be expected to detect the presence of unseen toxins or anticipate unforeseeable medical risks. Inevitably, millions of dangerous toys will find their way into the hands of children every year.
Congress attempted to deal with the increased risk from children’s products by passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) to strengthen the CPSC in 2008. However, the agency’s resources still amount to little more than a finger in the dyke. The agency has also been hampered in the past by the politicization of its leadership.
Perhaps more than any other category of product, the vast imports of toys illustrate the need for the civil justice system to bolster the front lines of regulators and parents. The civil justice system has time after time served as both a warning system to parents and federal agencies, and is the only mechanism capable of consistently holding corporations to account.
The Law Office of Van R. Irion represents personal injury clients in Knoxville and surrounding areas of East Tennessee, including Knox County, Sevier County, Loudon County, Anderson County, Blount County, Monroe County, McMinn County, Jefferson County and Claiborne County and the cities of Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Vonore, Madisonville, Alcoa, Sweetwater, Farragut, Tellico Plains, Loudon, Lenoir City, Athens, Oak Ridge, Greenville, Maryville and Clinton.
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