Power chairs

Thursday, October 31, 2002

ELYRIA, Ohio - Invacare's efforts to recall all of its power wheelchairs manufactured between 1985 and 2000 were challenged last month after the company settled a $7 million lawsuit in Arizona.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer characterized the manufacturer's efforts as "quiet," suggesting that Invacare only ramped up its efforts to recall defective chairs when it found itself embroiled in lawsuits.

In addition to last month's settlement, the Plain Dealer found that Invacare had paid $20 million to settle a lawsuit brought up in the wake of a 1999 Oklahoma wheelchair fire that killed one man.

Invacare began recalling the defective chairs in April of 2000 and expanded the recall in Sept of 2000. To date, the company said about 39% of an estimated 215,000 flawed chairs have been fixed, largely through the work of its dealer network. Invacare paid HME providers $50 and travel expenses for the work.

Invacare is not the only manufacturer whose products have been implicated in the deaths of users. FDA records report that products made by Invacare's largest competitors have also been charged in deaths from fire.

In the Arizona case, despite the settlement, Invacare is not persuaded that a defect in its power chair sparked the fire.

"We wanted to go to trial in that case because we have expert witnesses that say the fire was not caused by the power wheelchair but by candles," said Invacare Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Lou Slangen.

He said that the insurance company, when the potential liability reaches a certain amount, makes the call on whether to settle or go to trial. In this case, the insurance company settled.

HME News first reported news about the largest recall in Invacare's history in Feb. 2001. The company's critics are asking why Invacare didn't issue a press release as soon as it realized there was a problem with its power chairs. The company said a press release would not be the most effective means of getting the word out.

"Going to our providers and doing mailings is far more effective than putting a press release out," said Slangen. "The chances of that being picked up [by the mainstream] press would have not have been nearly as effective as going to our dealers."

As a case in point, Slangen pointed out the mainstream play that Invacare's press release about the recall got after the Sept. 1 article in the Plain Dealer. A database search of the nation's newspapers run in Lexis-Nexis Sept. 10 showed that no mainstream consumer publications wrote stories about the recall after Invacare issued the news.

The Associated Press published a Sept. 1 story concurrent with the Plain Dealer's piece; it's not clear, and not likely, that any other newspapers republished the AP story since Lexis typically runs those stories separately.

Instead of turning to the media, Invacare said it has reached out to its 6,000 dealers in nine separate mailings and to consumers with 136,000 postcards mailed to individuals who might be affected by the recall. The company found many of those consumers through the subscription lists of such publications as New Mobility, Exceptional Parent and Paraplegia News.

That's not enough, according to Doug Clark, a partner with Mesch, Clark & Rothschild of Tucson, Ariz., who represented the Arizona woman whose wheelchair caught fire. He said he'd be surprised if the same problem didn't cause another death.

"It's just a question of when," said Clark. "They [Invacare] have never gotten on television, or radio, or even a major newspaper, and said look, if you got one of these chairs, you're sitting on a fire trap and you got to get it to your dealer."

While allowing that "any death is one too many," Slangen said there hasn't been a case or a fire in three years. Moreover, since payers typically allow beneficiaries a new power chair every five-six years, the company believes that through attrition and recall work, most of the danger is past. HME