(Reuters) - Like millions of other parents over the past several years, Kevin and Lucy Ferrell used a new baby product called the Bumbo Baby Sitter that they bought at Toys R Us to prop up their son, Colby. The simple molded plastic seat is more upright than a bouncy chair, and less rigid than a high chair, making it a hit with parents looking for new infant gear.
But when 9-month-old Colby fell out of the seat and fractured his skull, his parents learned very quickly that the seat wasn't ideal for a small, moving child.
"He arched his back up and he kind of flipped out of it sideways and backwards and rolled right off (the table)," Kevin Ferrell says. "It just happened in a split second."
Bumbo, which is used to help babies sit up before they're able to do so on their own, has been an unquestioned success in sales - with nearly 4 million sold in the U.S. since 2003. But its safety record is uncertain.
The South African company recalled Bumbo in 2007 after a spate of 28 injuries reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission - including numerous skull fractures - and placed warning labels on the seats that said they shouldn't be used on elevated surfaces. Bumbo company records obtained as part of a lawsuit the Ferrells filed in June against the company and Toys R Us, where the product was purchased off their baby registry, show some 300 reported incidents, including some in other countries, mainly Great Britain. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, where the case is still in a pretrial phase.
Then in late November, the CPSC issued an unusual warning that there had been another 45 incidents since the recall, and that it had learned of another 18 older cases. It also noted that children were hurt both when the product was elevated and when it was on the ground.
Ross Cunningham of the Rose Walker firm in Austin, who represents the Ferrells and says he has settled a dozen lawsuits over Bumbo's safety, alleges in the lawsuit that Bumbo "has taken no effort" to reconfigure the product to prevent children from getting out of it, "despite having actual knowledge of the dangers associated with the Bumbo Baby Sitter...and the potential of the Bumbo Baby Sitter to cause serious injury to children."
Bumbo's U.S. attorney, Tarush R. Anand, says he cannot comment on the litigation, but did provide a statement from Bumbo, in which the company says the product is safe. "The Bumbo baby seat is a safe product for infants when it is used as intended: on the floor and never on an elevated surface," the statement says. "Children should always been closely supervised when they are in the Bumbo seat." The company also says it is working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to educate parents on the correct use of the seat.
Toys R Us is accused in the most recent lawsuit of knowingly stocking a baby product that has caused injuries. One of the company's buyers is quoted in the litigation as saying under oath that she had never seen an infant product like that without a safety restraint, and that after learning about the severity of the injuries, she didn't think it was safe.
Nancy Cowles, executive director of the advocacy group Kids in Danger, notes the product - unlike cribs, car seats and high chairs - is not governed by any government or industry standard. The Ferrell lawsuit says Toys R Us has a huge profit margin on the seats and has ignored even voices from within the company about their safety.
Toys R Us spokeswoman Katie Reczek said in a statement in response to questions that the retailer followed the terms of the recall and stands by the decision to keep selling it.
"The safety of the products we sell is, and always has been, our highest priority," Reczek said. "At the time of the recall of the Bumbo Baby Sitter, we immediately removed the product from our store shelves, and worked with Bumbo to update the warning labels on the packaging, as was required. This warning label cautions parents not to use the Bumbo on elevated surfaces. Due to the recall and labeling process, the product was off the sales floor and was not available for purchase for several months. We continue to offer Bumbo products in our stores, and as always, we closely monitor all product safety issues."
Its only competitor, bØbØPOD, added a seatbelt after the Bumbo recall.
Attorney Cunningham alleges in the Bumbo lawsuit that safer alternative design existed. "Specifically, Bumbo could have incorporated any combination of the following design changes: made the Bumbo Baby Sitter wider at the base, raised the side and back walls of the seat, installed a bulbous pommel on top of the post in between the child's legs, and incorporated a safety harness, seatbelt or other securing device...that would sit low and tight across the child's hips. These, and possibly other design improvements, would have prevented a child like (Colby) Ferrell from falling out of the Bumbo Baby Sitter."
The Ferrells are now evangelists for seatbelts. Says Kevin Ferrell: "For me, it was important, if nothing else, to try to prevent (this) from happening to future parents and kids."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
Editing by Lauren Young and Beth Gladstone