When is a product recall a good thing?

It may surprise you that I still patronize Starbucks. Although I'm a self-proclaimed fighter for the little guy, frequently play the part of David in his feature battle with the Goliath corporation of the week, and don't particularly like Starbucks coffee, I do really enjoy the iced coffee. I'm an infamous advocate of Zingerman's Coffee (a company local to me worth checking out if you're ever around Ann Arbor or see their stuff in a grocery store near you), but not even the scandalous revelation that Starbucks waters their iced coffee down with ice has kept me away.

 Consumer Protection Safety Commission photo of the offending straws.

Consumer Protection Safety Commission photo of the offending straws.

The other day, I saw a recall notice on the counter for the stainless steel straws that came with some of Starbuck's cold drink containers. The convenient, washable, reusable device also turns out to be a hazard to our younger generation, who are more fall/crash/accident prone and likely to be hurt by the rigid steel straw.

Having been a consumer as long as I can remember, I think I share the gut instinct of many when they see a recall notice. I hear an ominous "Tsk Tsk Tsk" intoned by my brain and I silently judge the offending megacorporation.

But are recalls always bad?

The answer is probably not. In fact, as a product liability attorney, I feel a lot more comfortable buying products from a company that does issue recalls when they find a problem, rather than a company that seems never to have a safety issue on any of its products. Perhaps it's my profession, but I live in fear of a numbers cruncher behind a closed door, applying "The Formula" to determine if the cost of litigation outweighs the cost of a recall. (This was the day job of the infamous protagonist of the novel Fight Club). In this case, the CPSC reports three known incidents and Starbucks reports something just shy of 3 million sold in North America. I'll be the first to tell you that the CPSC always reports a low percentage of the total number of incidents (most are never reported), but there aren't too many numbers better than 3, so this is a fairly proactive recall by any measure. In this case, I'm much more assured than I am alarmed.

But face it, most of us are not in any imminent danger of straw related injuries and the danger they pose to our children is a familiar one (ever heard a parent yell "don't run with that in your mouth!") Many products are a lot scarier, in my opinion.

Take car seats. Car seats all appear to be working properly, even though nearly half of them are installed incorrectly. They all look like their in good working order, even though I've handled cases involving catastrophic failures of these safety devices. Unlike that straw, you don't really know if there is a problem with your child's car seat until you get into a car accident.

This is why I always tell parents (mostly my wife) to make sure to send in the warranty cards on products, especially car seats and similar kids items. Most people aren't likely to hear if their child's car seat is the subject of a major recall (there have been more than a few) unless you fill out the card so the company can let you know.

Don't be afraid if you get a notice in the mail--ignore that 'tsking' you hear in the back of your head--the company may just save a life.