Over the past decade, Ikea’s tip-prone dressers have killed six children, forcing the retail giant to recall millions of bureaus worldwide and pay at least $96 million in settlements to grieving families.
But last year, when another Ikea dresser no longer met safety standards, the company didn’t rush to take the product off its shelves.
Instead, it kept selling the dresser.
Ikea’s three-drawer Kullen dresser became noncompliant with the furniture industry’s safety standard in mid-August after it was updated to further safeguard against the danger of bureaus falling onto children. Sixteen weeks passed before Ikea took the dresser off the market on Dec. 2. Then the company waited again, until last week, to issue a recall for the product, which federal safety regulators say poses a risk of “death or serious injury to children.”
The safety standard, though voluntary, is drafted by a committee made up of some of the biggest players in the furniture industry. Ikea is an active participant on that committee and was aware of the proposed changes months before the standard officially updated in August.
Vladimir Brajkovic, the head of product compliance for Ikea of Sweden, in a statement said Ikea had begun plans to phase out the Kullen dresser before the standard was published.
“Implementing a new standard or legislation is always a big undertaking for a company of our size,” Brajkovic said. “Products are distributed globally to Ikea stores through an extensive distribution network involving large-scale logistics management. It is an intricate system where millions of products arrive at thousands of different destinations every day.”
Janet McGee, whose son Ted died in a tip-over of an Ikea Malm dresser in 2016, said Ikea could have taken the dresser off the market in a day by removing it from its website and sending an email to store managers. Instead, she said, Ikea put more children at risk.
“It just begs the question: When are you going to take this seriously? What does it take?” she said. “Do you need more of our kids to die?”
Furniture tip-overs have been an intractable danger for decades, with a child dying on average every two weeks, according to federal data. Virtually all dressers have the potential to tip, but Ikea’s have proven to be particularly hazardous.
At least nine children have died in tip-overs of Ikea dressers since 1989. As part of a 2016 recall of 17.3 million units, Ikea pulled about half its bureaus off the market and said they did not meet the industry’s safety standard, including the popular, low-cost Malm line.
The vast majority of product recalls — including the two Ikea has issued for its dressers — are made voluntarily, after a company negotiates the terms with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency tasked with protecting Americans from hazardous products. Product liability experts say companies make a complicated calculation leading up to that decision, weighing the financial benefit of continuing to sell a product against the cost of a recall and their liability if a consumer is hurt.
In January, Ikea paid $46 million to the parents of a two-year-old California boy who died in 2017 trapped beneath the Malm dresser in his bedroom. The family’s lawyers said they believe it is the largest settlement resulting from the wrongful death of a child in U.S. history.
Michael Green, a Wake Forest University law school professor who has represented companies facing product liability suits, said regardless of Ikea’s reason for continuing to sell the noncompliant Kullen dresser, the company’s troubling history on dresser safety opens it to scrutiny.
“If there is a child that is badly injured by one of these dressers (sold) during that 4-month period, boy, there’s a lot of juries that would get awfully inflamed,” he said. “An awfully good plaintiff is an innocent child who has a dresser fall on her.”
The standard the Kullen and other Ikea dressers failed to meet includes a simple test: open a drawer, hang a 50 pound weight on it, and see if the unit tips. It is meant to ensure that a dresser can remain upright under the pull of a child, even if the dresser hasn’t been attached to the wall.
It is a voluntary standard, like most that guide the safety of consumer products in the United States. But in practice, the furniture guideline has become voluntary by name only. In February 2019, the CPSC warned manufacturers it would consider any dressers that didn’t comply to be defective and seek recalls where appropriate. The agency has since issued 9 dresser recalls, compared to none in the prior year.
Ikea’s three-drawer Kullen dresser did not fall under the safety standard at the time of regulator’s warning. Then, the test only applied to dressers taller than 30 inches, and the Kullen was about an inch and a half shy.
But in August, the height threshold was lowered to 27 inches, making the Kullen subject to the standard.
The standards committee, comprised of furniture manufacturers, safety advocates and consumers, had been considering the height change for more than a year, and it was preliminarily approved in June. Several committee members, in interviews with USA TODAY, said Ikea had time to prepare.
“They’ve been at the table for as long as I have. They knew these changes were coming,” said Bill Perdue, the vice president of Regulatory Affairs for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade association whose members include some of Ikea’s main competitors. “Everybody knew they were coming. It wasn’t a secret.”
Perdue said manufacturers in his association began preparing for the new standard well in advance, and many pulled noncompliant dressers off the market or redesigned them before the standard was updated.
“It just baffles me,” he said of Ikea’s decision to delay.
Ikea declined to say how many Kullen dressers were sold in the nearly four months that passed before the company took the product off the market. By then, Ikea has received six reports of the Kullen dresser tipping over, two of them resulting in minor injuries, according to Ikea. The company said the reports were received some time after its 2016 recall but declined to elaborate.
Ikea has now recalled more than 18.1 million dressers in the United States alone, including 820,000 three-drawer Kullen dressers sold since 2005.
As of January, just 8 percent of the recalled products had been returned or repaired, according to numbers provided by Ikea. Consumers who own a recalled dresser can request a free anchoring kit from Ikea or return it, in most cases for a full refund. Ikea will pick up the dressers from buyers’ homes.
McGee said she wishes the Kullen dresser had been included in the recall from the start and that Ikea had reason to be watching the dresser closely. The Kullen line is a virtual lookalike to Ikea’s Malm line, which has been involved in the deaths of five children, including her son’s. Three of those fatalities were caused by the three-drawer Malm.
That dresser was recalled in 2016. The Kullen was not, because of a height difference of two and a half inches.
“One of them killed three children,” McGee said. “And the other one continued to be sold for three and a half years after.”
Brajkovic, of Ikea of Sweeden, said the company “stands by the safety of our products.” He said the recalled Kullen dresser is safe when attached to the wall as the instructions direct. Ikea has said the same of its other recalled dressers.
In an email about the recall to consumers last week, Ikea opened by describing its products as marrying “both safety and quality,” then provided a set of tips on how to safely use dressers. Only then, at the close of the email, did Ikea provide information on the recall.
Marietta Robinson, who served as a commissioner at the CPSC when Ikea’s 2016 dresser recall was announced, said Ikea has always downplayed its responsibility to make safe dressers and instead focused on anchoring, placing the burden on the consumer. She said she had been hopeful after the 2016 recall that Ikea recognized the need to make their dressers inherently stable but that now, it came as no surprise to her that Ikea sold another noncompliant dresser.
“I have been appalled by their conduct from the very beginning,” she said. "The company has been consistently focused on profits and not on the safety of kids."
Tricia L. Nadolny is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team. She can be reached at email@example.com or @TriciaNadolny.
I own an Ikea dresser. Now what?
Was my dresser part of the recall?
If you own a Malm dresser sold between 2002 and mid-2016, there is a good chance it was recalled. But there are more than 100 other lines of Ikea dressers included as well. A full list of products, along with steps for taking part in the recall, is available at www.ikea-usa.com/saferhomestogether.
I own a recalled dresser. Should I keep it or get rid of it?
If it is not anchored, first make sure it cannot be reached by children.
The recall allows people to keep or return the item, but safety advocates recommend that the dressers be removed from homes, because of the concern that they will not be anchored or they will later be used by someone unaware of the recall. Many of the recalled dressers can be returned for a full refund. Consumers can bring the dresser to the any Ikea retailer, or Ikea will come pick it up from your home, free of charge.
I want to keep my Ikea dresser. What are my options?
You should anchor it to the wall. You can request a free wall anchoring kit from Ikea and install it yourself, or Ikea will send someone to your home to attach it for you, free of charge.
Do I need a receipt to take part in the recall?
Typically a receipt is not required, but Ikea says that it can request a receipt based on the total number of dressers being returned by one customer.