The hand that rocks the cradle

Helen Chenoweth made her mark as an anti-environmentalist and a supporter of militias. But she also pushes tort reform for manufacturers, including a campaign donor whose baby cradle may have been a killer.

Most people know Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) as the congresswoman who defended America's militias just after the Oklahoma City bombing. Or perhaps they remember the "endangered salmon bake" fundraiser she threw during her 1994 campaign, serving up portions of the beleaguered sockeye salmon. She also grabbed attention for her T-shirt that read "Earth First!" on the front and "We'll log the other planets later" on the back.

But few know the first-term representative from Boise receives campaign contributions from Graco, one of the country's largest manufacturers of children's products, including the Converta-Cradle, a rocking crib that might have caused the deaths of at least 12 infants. Graco is just one of many manufacturers who gave money to Chenoweth and other Republicans who made a lucrative campaign promise: to restrict laws that allow consumers to sue companies for damages caused by faulty products.

Graco Children's Products, a privately held company, is a leading stroller manufacturer, with estimated revenues of $100 million. It's also known as a devoutly Baptist company that reportedly provides chapel services for employees twice a month, and will not sell public shares in the company because in the Bible, 2 Corinthians says, "do not be yoked together with unbelievers."

The Cone family, which founded the Elverson, Pa.-based Graco, began contributing to federal campaigns during the 1994 elections after several parents filed lawsuits claiming the company's automatic-rocking crib sometimes stopped rocking and tilted the infants' heads and necks, suffocating them. (Graco recalled the Converta-Cradle in 1992.) In the past two years, CEO Edward Cone, brother Robert Cone, and Robert's wife, Dawn, have contributed $153,950 to PACs and 15 federal candidates.

Robert Cone, now retired but a major stockholder in the company, says the family gave to candidates who share their views. "Did it have anything to do with product liability? No," he says.Most of the candidates the family supported, including Chenoweth, fellow Republican Jon Christensen of Nebraska, Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), and Andrea Seastrand (R-Calif.), tout a religious right agenda likely to appeal to the Cones' strong Baptist beliefs. Robert Cone does, however, acknowledge meeting with the leading product liability lobbying group. The director of the Product Liability Coordinating Committee, Ann Gosier, confirmed Graco's participation. "They've been very willing to participate," says Gosier. "Children's manufacturers have not been involved in this as a group, but Graco has."

Also, all of the candidates the Cones support favor product liability reform, and Chenoweth, though just a freshman, takes credit for drafting the product liability bill that passed the House last fall.

President Clinton vetoed the Republican product liability reform bill in May, but Chenoweth (who received $3,000 from Graco) and its other supporters promise to keep pushing until the bill becomes law. That's good news for Graco. Such laws would strongly impede suits like those brought against Graco by parents who believe the company should pay for any death caused by its product.

Greg Storts last saw his son Shane alive at 2:30 a.m. on August 3, 1990. He looked in on Shane when he came home from his job at a Tulsa, Okla., print shop, and found the three-week-old baby stirring in the Converta-Cradle his wife, Pamela, had bought.

Unlike traditional cradles that rock from side to side, the Converta-Cradle rocked from head to toe, and its design allowed the cradle to hang on a frame so it could also be used as a swing. Storts wound up the crank that set the cradle in motion, and went to bed.

He was awakened at 6 a.m. by Pamela's hysterical screams. "When I saw Shane, he was cold," Storts says. The medical examiner first ruled the cause of death as sudden infant death syndrome, but has since classified it as "undetermined."

In the years that followed, the Storts had two more children, and slowly tried to put the tragedy behind them. Then in May 1995 -- five years after his son's death -- Storts caught the end of an NBC news report that detailed the recall of Graco's Converta-Cradle, suspected of having caused infant deaths.

Storts contacted a lawyer, David Matthews, who represented another family that had filed suit against Graco. Matthews told Storts that many of the deaths that had occurred in the Converta-Cradle initially had been attributed to SIDS or other causes, without taking into account the position of the cradle at the time of death.

Matthews now represents Storts, one of two plaintiffs still suing Graco over the cradle. (The other plaintiff is a parent whose baby died nearly a year after the product's recall.) The plaintiffs claim they have evidence showing that a flaw in the Converta- Cradle's design surfaced months before the cradle went to market. Graco's lawyer, Richard Bethea, says the cradle had nothing to do with the infant fatalities. "Those are SIDS deaths," Bethea says.

Graco sold about 169,000 Converta-Cradles. But, after the recall, only about half were returned, which means another 80,000 may remain in circulation, stored in attics or passed on to other families through donations and yard sales.

When the media first started to report on the lawsuits against Graco, the company lashed out, issuing subpoenas against the Boston Globe in 1994 and NBC in 1995, demanding reporters' notes and outtakes of the TV broadcasts. In the end, neither request was granted by the courts.

Two months after the Boston Globe's first reports in August 1994, the Cones began contributing large sums of money to political campaigns. In addition to conservative candidates, the Cones also gave to a number of far-right political action committees -- such as the Eagle Forum, the Fight PAC, Faith Family & Freedom, and the Madison Project -- all of which backed candidates who supported product liability and tort reform.

Graco didn't hire a lobbyist. If the company had, it would have been registered in House lobbying records, whose information is open to the public. Instead, Graco, like other companies, joined a trade association that lobbies on its behalf. "That way, companies are not held so accountable for particular legislation," observes Mary Griffin, insurance counsel with Consumers Union. "It gives them anonymity."

When the House introduced its Common Sense Legal Reforms Act in February 1995, Chenoweth's office issued a release boasting of her role in drafting the product liability portion of the bill. "The cost of manufacturing ladders increased after some lughead tried to balance on the very top of the ladder carrying two cans of paint," her statement read. "He fell off the ladder. Of course, [he] then sued the company that built the ladder for negligence. Now, manufacturers must bear the extra expense of producing warning signs that tell people not to stand on the very top of the ladder."

Her statement continued: "Companies should not be sued when people fail to use common sense."

The bill was eventually split into several sections, including the Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act, which would have capped punitive damages at $250,000 and placed a 15-year statute of limitations on product liability cases. Both provisions enjoyed bipartisan support. But the act would also have required a plaintiff to prove a company had "specifically intended to cause harm" when a product malfunctioned -- a stricter standard than those applied in most states, where only recklessness must be proved for punitive damage awards. Furthermore, the bill would have weighed punitive awards with the "economic injury" caused by a product's malfunction.

But how do you prove an economic injury from the death of an infant? Using that measure, "you could get zero punitive damages," says Daniel Leonard, a Boston attorney who settled suits against Graco for two Massachusetts couples.

The act's critics argue that potential lawsuits apply pressure on companies to produce safe products. "The threat of product liability damages in the back of the mind of the manufacturer is a tremendous deterrent," says Edward Swartz, a top plaintiff lawyer and the author of Toys That Kill.

And others note that product liability lawsuits, demonized in the GOP's "Contract With America," are not as misused as widely thought. In supporting the president's veto, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) cites a National Center for State Courts study that reports that less than 1 percent of all civil cases in state courts are product liability cases, while business contract and property cases -- which the Republicans refused to target in their proposed tort reforms -- account for 20 percent. (As an example, Markey referred to the Hormel Foods suit brought against the Muppets' production company for creating a character named Spa'am in the film Muppet Treasure Island. Hormel claims it maligns the company's canned luncheon meat.)

Greg Storts, whose suit against Graco is scheduled for a hearing later this year, says he's heard of the well-known product liability awards that tort reform advocates often mention, such as when a jury ordered McDonald's to pay an elderly woman $2.7 million after she spilled scalding coffee, which she had purchased from the fast-food restaurant, in her lap.

"I'd hate to call the shots on the McDonald's lawsuit," Storts says. "I personally believe there needs to be tort reform out there. But I don't believe [mine] is a frivolous lawsuit."

The Converta-Cradle "was intended for a vulnerable population, and for a time when they're at their most vulnerable -- when they're asleep," says Mary Ellen Fise, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. "You shouldn't have to watch children when they're asleep in a cradle."

Jeanne Brokaw is a Mother Jones investigative reporter.