Australia’s consumer watchdog is taking supermarket giant Woolworths to court over several unsafe products, including a deep fryer that allegedly burnt customers and a folding stool that could not withstand the weight it was meant to.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission alleges Woolworths made false or misleading representations about the products by offering them for sale when they were not safe and then by continuing to sell the products once they were aware they could have caused serious injuries.
It is not the first time this year the supermarket has found itself facing legal action from the watchdog, after the company was found guilty of breaching an undertaking on its shopper dockets in April.
The products in question include a Woolworths home brand Abode Stainless Steel Deep Fryer, which the ACCC alleges seriously burnt two customers on separate occasions after the handle of the product snapped off and splashed them with hot oil.
Another of the products under the spotlight is Woolworths Select Drain Cleaner, which allegedly caused one customer to have a nose bleed and burns to her eyelid, forehead and nose, and a separate customer to have burns to her foot after she dropped the product in store.
The ACCC also alleges Woolies made false or misleading representations about the weight capacity of its Home Collection Padded Flop Chair and Masters Home Improvement Folding Stepping Stool.
Court documents allege one customer fractured her spine after a folding stool collapsed, despite claiming she weighed 25 kilograms less than the maximum weight labelled on the product.
These products have all subsequently been recalled by Woolworths, but the watchdog says the products were not recalled quickly enough after Woolworths became aware of such incidents.
“Companies should ensure that they have effective quality assurance processes in place to prevent unsafe products from reaching their shelves,” said ACCC chairman Rod Sims in a statement.
“All suppliers have an obligation to ensure that any product defects identified are dealt with swiftly to prevent harm to consumers. This includes ensuring that any serious injury or illness associated with a product is reported promptly and that recall action is taken where appropriate.”
Woolworths issued a statement saying the company puts customer safety first and has a strong record of compliance.
“These are serious matters and we will evaluate each claim carefully and respond as appropriate on merit,” said the supermarket.
Woolworths said it has committed additional resources to its quality assurance team in the last few years and has significant capacity to take feedback from customers.
Matthew Hall, partner at Swaab Lawyers, told SmartCompany this morning small businesses may be in a better position to deal with unsafe products than the big end of town.
“They are much closer to the action,” says Hall.
“I suspect a large part of the problem with these products was the breakdown in the process of communicating information from store managers up. It’s like Chinese whispers by the time it gets there.”
“If I was the Woolworths CEO, I’d be asking, ‘how could this happen?’”
Hall says this case should be a reminder to small businesses to have policies in place to deal with complaints about the safety of their products.
“The lesson is to ensure there are processes by which they can become aware very quickly that there is a problem,” he says.
If a business receives a complaint about the safety of a product, Hall says they should firstly find out as much information as possible and determine what kind of issue they are dealing with.
He says not all complaints should lead to an immediate product recall and business should seek legal advice before they get to that point.
When dealing with products sourced from manufactures, Hall says small business owners are not responsible for product recalls but should be aware of whom to refer complaints to if they receive any grievances from customers.