A recent prosecution in the UK illustrates how product safety regulators in Europe are increasingly willing to use criminal enforcement powers to punish product safety breaches and ensure a high standard of protection for consumers.
Mamas & Papas had entered into a contract with Jeenay (a distributor) for the supply of "Mercury"-branded car seats for children aged 4 and under, which were sold in Argos between January 2013 and April 2016. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the seats could crack and allow too much head movement, potentially leading to injury. Following a three year investigation by Milton Keynes Trading Standards, Mamas & Papas and Jeenay Ltd pleaded guilty to supplying unsafe child car seats under the General Product Safety Regulations.
At the hearing, His Honour Judge Rochford commented:
"By October 2015 Christine Mitchell was well aware of safety issues and chose not to act upon them properly. She was wholly indifferent to whether seats were safe in terms of the R44 regime but also in terms of the safety of children. She was content for corners to be cut."
"As for Mamas & Papas they entrusted Christine Mitchell and assumed R44 to be watertight but systems were not in place or operating properly and their failures have led to unsafe products being placed on the market."
Following the guilty plea, Mamas & Papas were fined £20,000 and, ordered to pay £50,000 in costs. The sole director of Jeenay, Christine Mitchell, received a 12 week custodial sentence.
Unusually, the judge also made confiscation orders under Part 2 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, to account for the profits made from the supply of unsafe products. Mamas & Papas were subject to an order for £275,000, and Jeenay for £236,850.
The car seats have since been recalled, and no harm to consumers has been reported.
The use in this case of the criminal law, imposition of criminal sanctions, including a custodial sentence for one defendant, and the application of the Proceeds of Crime Act are unprecedented and marks a significant extension of the enforcement approach of product safety authorities.
In this case, there was no suggestion that the conduct of Mamas & Papas was deliberate. The Judge blamed failures in their internal systems. Product Manufacturers will be concerned that a sanction that was designed to recover the proceeds of crime gained during the course of criminal activity is being used in this way.
This is part of a trend that we are seeing around the world, with enforcement agencies becoming more active in the field of product safety, and the threat of significant sanctions becoming ever-greater.
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