Defective: When government safety officials learned about 13 deaths tied to an infant rocker, a federal law prevented them from immediately alerting the public

The manufacturer also failed to specifically tell Congress about deaths when questioned about fatalities tied to its infant products
Reporter Lee Zurik, Photojournalist Scotty Smith, Photojournalist and Video Editor Jon Turnipseed
Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 4:19 PM CDT
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AMARILLO, Texas (InvestigateTV) - The panicked call from her son-in-law came at 6 a.m. on Jan. 7, 2019: “Savannah’s gone,” he cried.

Cathy Greninger raced to the house to see what was wrong with her 4-month-old granddaughter. She arrived 20 minutes later to find police, ambulances and medics, and then learned that there was nothing they could do to save Savannah.

Savannah Savage was found dead in a Fisher-Price Infant-to-Toddler Rocker. The medics and the coroner all suspected that the rocker was associated with her death, Greninger said.

Less than a month later, on Feb. 1, 2019, Greninger notified both Fisher-Price and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission about the tragedy.

“I wanted to let them know as soon as possible that there’s a problem with this rocker so they can investigate it, see if there were any technical designs wrong with it, engineering flaws, just to kind of give them a heads up,” Greninger said.

But the public didn’t learn about potential dangers posed by the rocker for three more years.

In June, the CPSC and Fisher-Price issued a safety warning about the rocker indicating they were aware of 13 infant deaths linked to the product since 2009. The rocker is unsafe for sleeping, the warning stated.

“To find out that there were that many deaths was really a shocking part,” Greninger told InvestigateTV during an interview in July.

But that June 14 warning by the CPSC and the world’s leading manufacturer of baby products and toys also signaled that company executives for both Fisher Price and parent-company Mattel may not have been fully transparent during a 2021 Congressional committee investigating Fisher-Price’s response to infant deaths tied do a different baby item, the Rock n’ Play.

Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz did not mention the infant rocker when asked directly under oath if there were other Fisher-Price products on the market that led to deaths.

Fisher-Price senior vice president Chuck Scothon also did not specifically disclose deaths tied to the rocker during his testimony that day, either.

“We know that the Fisher-Price infant-toddler rocker at that point had infant deaths associated with it,” said Richard J. Trumka Jr., a CPSC commissioner. “Fisher-Price would have been aware of that and chose to say ‘no’ in that hearing.”

At least two members of Congress want those company executives to explain why they failed to tell lawmakers about the rocker deaths.

Several models of baby products manufactured by Fisher-Price have been the subject of recalls...
Several models of baby products manufactured by Fisher-Price have been the subject of recalls and warnings in the last few years.(InvestigateTV Illustration)

CPSC Commissioner says Fisher-Price watered down the rocker warning

In recent years, Fisher-Price has come under Congressional scrutiny because nearly 100 infant deaths were tied to its Rock n’ Play inclined sleeper that was recalled in April 2019. The Rock n’ Play falls into a class of inclined baby products that a federal law now bans because it is unsafe for sleeping and can lead to suffocation or asphyxiation.

The rocker also features an incline seat.

The recent Fisher-Price episode further highlighted the problems with the federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which, in theory, is supposed to rid American households of dangerous or defective everyday items. But in practice, the law gives the power to manufacturers to decide when and how warnings and recalls are made public.

The law prevented the CPSC from quickly alerting the public about the rocker dangers – and ultimately, the warning was watered down by Fisher-Price, Commissioner Trumka said.

“It’s a half-throated warning to the public because we had to negotiate every word of it with the company,” he said. “They sent us a package of hundreds and hundreds of pages of information about the deaths associated with that product. And so I read medical reports, coroners’ reports, heartbreaking gut-wrenching information, and I didn’t sleep that night until I was done reading all this. I didn’t sleep for a couple of days because that much information weighing on you and not being able to tell the public, when that should be our most central role, you know, trumpeting that information from the rooftops, it’s heartbreaking and aggravating.”

Fisher-Price has sold more than 17 million of the infant rockers since the 1990s, according to the warning. The 13 reported deaths tied to product occurred between 2009 and 2021.

“I believe that it should have been recalled years ago, after the first death in it. It should have been a red flag,” Greninger said.

The rockers, however, have not been recalled.

Fisher-Price did not respond to InvestigateTV’s requests for comment on the rocker or the executives’ comments in the 2021 Congressional hearing.

Timeline of Fisher-Price baby products and government actions

A heartbroken grandmother tries to protect other infants

When Greninger learned that her daughter, Allison, was pregnant, she began the shopping spree for the first grandchild and the first-time mom.

“We just showered her with everything we could think of to make her life easier as a young, married mom,” Greninger said.

Greninger bought the rocker because the box label said it was “calming and soothing for babies” and because she trusted the Fisher-Price name. Greninger took the word “soothing” as a signal that it was OK for sleeping.

InvestigateTV purchased a rocker from Facebook Marketplace and found that the rocker packaging contained mixed messages. The outer box said that the rocker featured a “foldout kickstand (that) makes it a stationary seat for feeding and napping.” But sewn into the fabric of the backside of the rocker was a warning label that cautioned, “this product is not intended for unsupervised or prolonged periods of sleep.”

Savannah seemed to enjoy the rocker so much that Greninger also had one at her home for the days that she watched her granddaughter.

The night before she died, the family took a video of Savannah in the rocker drinking a bottle as her father can be heard encouraging her to hold the bottle on her own. She did.

Hours later, she was dead.

Greninger, a nurse, had to break the news to her daughter, who was at work.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to say,” she said. “You just don’t imagine ever having to tell your child that their child is dead.”

A coroner ruled that she died of probable positional asphyxiation, records show, and told the family privately that the rocker was likely a contributing factor, Greninger said.

When the safety warning about the rocker was made public earlier this summer, the Randall County official who ordered Savannah’s autopsy told InvestigateTV that he immediately thought of the lifeless baby he saw in the rocker on Jan. 7, 2019.

Weeks after Savannah’s funeral, Greninger notified the CPSC and Fisher-Price about her death.

In a string of emails that Greninger provided to InvestigateTV, she thought CPSC appeared to take the matter seriously. She corresponded with an agency investigator.

“I understand and concur with you about the usage of the rockers as a resting or sleeping device. It is our hope that we can develop solutions to prevent these types of incidents from occurring,” the investigator said while also telling her that he would obtain the autopsy results from the coroner.

Fisher-Price sent its condolences and added, " As discussed, children’s safety is extremely important to us and we have adopted strict standards for safety, quality and performance. As you know, we would have liked the opportunity to conduct an evaluation of the Fisher-Price Infant-to-Toddler Rocker but understand it was discarded. Thank you for providing the video and photographs for our file; they will aid in our review.”

That was the last Greninger heard from Fisher-Price for three years.

Deaths tied to the rocker were kept from Congress

Last year, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched an investigation into the Fisher-Price’s Rock n’ Play, which was tied to dozens of deaths when it was recalled in 2019.

The Rock n’ Play came to market in 2009 as an inclined sleeper, even as the American Academy of Pediatrics had long said the only safe place for babies to sleep is on a flat surface.

In 2012, Fisher-Price was notified that a baby died in a Rock ‘n Play, according to the company’s own internal reports made public in federal court records. Additional deaths followed. But the Rock n’ Play wasn’t recalled until April 2019.

Then in June 2021 – just days before the Congressional hearing – Fisher-Price recalled another baby product - the 4-in-1-Rock n’ Glide Soothers, reporting that four infants had died in it between April 2019 and February 2020.

The public hearing on June 7, 2021 featured the Mattel CEO Kreiz.

During the hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, asked him, “Do you have any other products that are manufactured today that are in the marketplace that have been linked to deaths of children?”

Kreitz began talking about the glider recall until Speier cut him off.

“I’m talking about any other products that we, the American public, do not know about that have caused or have been associated with the deaths of children,” Speier said.

Kreitz answered, “We share all information with the CPSC. I don’t have any further data than that, but I can tell you we work transparently with the CPSC.”

He never mentioned the rocker even though Fisher-Price had been alerted to the death of Savannah Savage in 2019 by both her grandmother and the CPSC.

“If they were aware of another death with another product, they absolutely misled me and the committee and Congress,” Speier told InvestigateTV. “If he was ignorant of the facts, he should have corrected the record subsequent to that hearing, and it appears that he did not. So, I think it’s important for him to come back. And I think we need a fuller exploration of these products and the injuries and deaths associated with them.”

The day after the rocker warning, Rep. Katie Porter sent a blistering letter to Kreiz and Scothon.

“You have consistently prioritized shareholder profits over children’s lives and failed to provide accurate information,” the California Democrat wrote.

She wrote about how Scothon assured Congress that every Fisher-Price infant seat associated with deaths had been recalled.

“That was untrue,” Porter wrote.

Warning and recall delays have dangerous consequences

Consumer advocates, families of victims, members of Congress and even CPSC Commissioner Trumka say federal law is allowing for increased injuries and deaths.

At least one other infant died after Greninger notified the CPSC and Fisher-Price, federal records show. A child fatality review team reported to the CPSC that the rocker may have contributed to the death of a 2-month-old in March 2021.

Greninger “took all of these important proactive steps to help other people. I think not only is she incredibly heroic, but I’m sure she’s incredibly frustrated that there hasn’t been stronger action,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

A provision in the Consumer Product Safety Act – known as Section 6(b) or what Trumka calls the ‘gag rule’ – prevents the agency from issuing a public warning or recall without the consent of the manufacturer.

CPSC’s own data shows that it knew that the Fisher-Price infant rocker was tied to a death as early as 2011. A medical examiner from Chico, California reported that a one-month-old was found dead in the rocker.

At least 20 others reported to the CPSC about issues with the rocker – the majority stating that the rocker was unstable and fell apart or that their baby rocked forward and hit his or her face on the ground.

When Fisher-Price officially notified the CPSC on March 31 of a pattern of deaths tied to the rocker, the commissioners were not allowed to immediately tell the public because of that gag rule.

Trumka, who was appointed to the commission by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate last year, lashed out in a statement attached to the warning about the consequences of section 6(b).

“Just three years ago, this agency oversaw the recall of the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play after a staggering number of infant deaths. Tragically, we now grieve 13 more infant deaths in Fisher Price rockers,” Trumpka’s statement began, referring to the product in which Savannah Savage was in when she died.

The Gag Rule (Section 6b) led to needless delay. When CPSC needs to warn the public about a pattern of death and injury tied to a product, it should be able to quickly issue that warning to prevent further loss of life. Instead, a Gag Rule blocks us from doing so without first seeking permission from the product’s maker. Here, the Gag Rule delayed our message to the public by two months. Even with cooperation from Fisher-Price, we fought an uphill battle to release this information to warn parents and caregivers. Sharing vital safety information should not be this hard. Congress must immediately repeal the Gag Rule. If CPSC cannot issue timely warnings, dangers will remain hidden in people’s homes.”

In an interview with InvestigateTV, Trumka said there’s much more to the rocker story that remains hidden from the public.

“We know more. And if I was a parent, there’s information I’d want to hear that I’m not allowed to say,” he said. “I couldn’t tell my wife. I can’t tell . . . because of the gag rule.”

Because of that provision in the law, he said that “this agency isn’t really able to protect the public in many ways.”

But, he said, Fisher-Price has had the power on its own to alert parents to the rocker’s potential dangers.

“Fisher Price would have been aware of each of those deaths and much closer to real time. And they certainly should have been aware of the pattern that was emerging over time,” Trumka said. “The gag rule stops the commission from talking. It does not stop a company from talking. And I would love to see responsible companies tell the public themselves when their products are associated with deaths rather than waiting.”

Yet the company remained silent for years.

Congress also can repeal that gag rule by passing the Sunshine in Product Safety Act. But senators haven’t even held a hearing on the proposed bill, which first was introduced in April 2021.

‘Warnings won’t fix the problem’

A wall in Greninger’s family room features Savannah’s first – and last – professional photo shoot.

The consequences of her death have rippled through the family.

Her parents left their apartment the day she died and never returned. They later divorced.

Greninger’s daughter, who did not want to be interviewed, later delivered another child, Anthony, who is now two.

“We had many, many sleepless nights,” Greninger said. “I kept him a lot for her to work at night. And he would stay with me several nights a week. And it was it was awful, because you had to pay attention to make sure he was still breathing because of what happened. Yeah, it was very terrifying.”

But she continues to worry about other babies whose parents unwittingly use the rocker.

“My only sigh of relief would come when they recall this product,” she said. “There’s 13 babies that are not alive because of this.”

Trumka also wants every infant product with an inclined seat removed from the market.

“The warnings won’t fix the problem,” he said. “Every incline product is unsafe for infant sleep.”

In November, the Safe Sleep for Babies Act takes effect, which will ban the manufacturing and sale of inclined sleeping products. The commission currently is considering which baby products fall within that category. Trumka wants the rocker to be included in the ban.

On July 7, Greninger received an unexpected email from Fisher-Price.

“Since our records indicate that you may own one or more of these rockers, we are contacting you directly. Consumers are reminded not to use rockers for infant sleep, that infants should never be unsupervised or unrestrained in rockers and that bedding material should not be added to the product,” the email reads in part.

The email listed the case number Greninger was assigned by Fisher-Price when she alerted the company that her granddaughter was found dead in its rocker.

The email didn’t mention that 13 babies had died, including her own beloved granddaughter.