Woolworths has been hit with a more than $3 million penalty for failing to swiftly alert the consumer watchdog about and continuing to stock a raft of faulty products, including a house brand drain cleaner that burned a hole in a baby’s leg.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched legal action against the retail giant in September 2014, alleging it had made false or misleading statements about a range of products and continued to sell them after receiving reports of injuries.
Federal Court Justice James Edelman on Friday slapped Woolworths with a $3 million pecuniary penalty for six courses of conduct involving the items, along with a $57,000 penalty for failing to comply with reporting obligations.
Some consumers suffered serious injury and illness as a result of using the products in question, particularly the “Select Drain Cleaner”, his judgment read.
One man sustained permanent damage to his eyesight and had to stop working as a boilermaker, while a baby girl suffered serious burns to her leg that required a skin graft and caused permanent scarring.
The 11-month-old girl was one of a number of people to be hurt as a result of an ineffective child resistant cap on the product.
“The contents spilled (and) burned a hole in the girl’s leg,” Justice Edelman noted.
The judgment also detailed injuries suffered by a woman who bought a deep fryer from a Big W store at Lake Macquarie in 2012, only to be splashed with hot oil when she tried to move it and the handle snapped off.
Additional problems arose regarding Homebrand safety matches – including customer complaints the whole box ignited after striking a single match – as well as a padded chair and folding stool advertised as being able to bear more weight than they really could.
In applying the pecuniary penalty, Justice Edelman said the $2.2 million proposed by the household name was insufficient given the seriousness of the contraventions of the Australian Consumer Law.
In a statement, Woolworths acknowledged their quality processes had failed and apologised to customers.
More than $20 million had been invested on a new, improved “product life-cycle management system”, it said.
The court penalty comes after Woolworths and rival Coles were affected by a salmonella outbreak linked to a Victorian pre-packaged lettuce supplier.
A video of a huntsman writhing around in one of the brand’s Italian Style salad mixes has also recently gone viral.