WASHINGTON—The first major U.S. consumer-safety penalty in almost three years against a maker of popular fire extinguishers could be a preview of the tougher oversight companies will face under a more aggressive Biden administration.

North Carolina-based Kidde was fined $12 million last week after the company failed to report significant fire-extinguisher defects “in a timely matter,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission found.

Some extinguishers with plastic handles failed to discharge or required dangerously excessive force to operate, the commission found. One death was also linked to the failure of an extinguisher to function properly.

Nearly 38 million of Kidde’s popular red extinguishers manufactured since 1973 were recalled in 2017 after the problems came to light. Kidde extinguishers are sold at WalMart, Home Depot, Amazon and many other retailers nationwide.

“The company knew long before the recall happened that they were having problems. They are required by law, when you make a consumer product, to report that to the agency,” asserted Sally Greenberg, executive director of National Consumers League. “They failed to do so and then they minimized the extent of the defective fire extinguishers.”

Kidde countered that it “worked closely with relevant authorities to ensure that these fire extinguishers were recalled as quickly as possible and replaced with different, unaffected models,” according to a written statement by a company representative.

Aside from the Kidde action, the only other major penalty handed out by the consumer watchdog since President Donald Trump took office was a $27 million fine against Polaris in 2018 tied to a fire hazard in off-road recreational vehicles.

The commission did not issue any fines in the 2020 fiscal year.

“Enforcement has been down under the Trump administration, not only at the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, but at many, many agencies,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America.

The penalty against Kidde likely signals a big shift after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden enters office, consumer advocates such as Weintraub and Greenberg say.

Weintraub predicted the agency will use “more tools — not only civil penalties, but meaningful regulations” to “more extensively and more effectively protect consumers.”

The consumer agency has been largely rudderless during the Trump presidency.

Trump appointee Ann Marie Buerkle stepped down as acting chairwoman in 2019 amid backlash over her handling of children’s product recalls. Her potential replacement was also blocked by the Senate over concerns about qualifications.

The power vacuum has left Robert Adler, a Democrat and holdover from the Obama era, as acting chairman in the waning days of a pro-business Trump administration that’s sought to relax regulations.

Adler plans to leave later this year after a replacement is found.

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