On the afternoon of June 30, Michael Taillard and his wife and four kids emerged from the Shop-N-Save in Benzonia, Mich., with a shopping cart full of groceries. On the lower rack sat a 128-ounce bottle of Rooto Professional Drain Opener, a powerful cleaner made almost entirely of sulfuric acid and sold in a protective, plastic bag.
As Taillard turned the cart toward their van, the red-and-white, plastic bottle slid over and fell to the ground. The drop was slight, just a few inches, he said in an interview. But it was enough to pop off the bottle’s cap and seal, dumping yellow acid all over the right leg and foot of his 5-year-old daughter, Katherine.
“You could tell immediately when it started to burn because she started screaming like crazy,” said Taillard, 33, who scooped up his daughter and raced to a sink inside the store. “She was just frantic.”
Two months later, Taillard and his daughter still bear scars from the accident. He says Katherine’s calf and foot are discolored and blotchy, and may be for the rest of her life. Taillard, meanwhile, says he has a serious infection and a dead spot on his right leg, from acid that dripped onto him and melted his cargo shorts when he carried Katherine into the store.
But Taillard, a business consultant, says he’s outraged that the packaging failed after such a short fall. He says he wants to ensure that other consumers aren’t harmed by Rooto Corp. products – which have been the target of previous complaints about leaking.
Federal law requires manufacturers to immediately report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission when a product poses a significant risk of injury or death to consumers. Manufacturers may use their judgment about what qualifies as a serious risk, but if the CPSC determines that they were wrong, it can pursue civil penalties.
In a deposition last year, Rooto’s owner testified that he wasn’t aware of any obligation to report problems to the commission. Taillard said he has met with a CPSC investigator, but commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said his agency currently does not have an open case involving Rooto Corp.
Product design experts say a well-designed bottle shouldn’t leak, even when dropped – especially if it contains something dangerous. Consumers, however, have complained for years about problems with Rooto’s bottles of sulfuric acid drain opener.
In May 2011, William Mosher of Trenton, Mich., opened a new bottle of Rooto Professional Drain Opener when the inner seal underneath the bottle cap failed, spewing acid onto his chest, according to a lawsuit he filed against the company. Mosher suffered third-degree burns. Mosher’s lawyer said Rooto paid his client to settle the case, but he didn’t disclose the amount.
Four months later, an unidentified consumer who purchased a 64-ounce bottle of Rooto drain cleaner in Piedmont, Calif., filed a report with the CPSC. The consumer claimed that when he tried to open the bottle, it slipped out of his hands and fell to the floor, knocking off the cap and splashing acid onto his feet and legs. The consumer said he suffered first-degree burns on his lower legs and feet and second-degree burns on both his calves.
Then, in June 2014, Deborah Mooneyhan says she burned her hands when she went to grab a bottle of Rooto-manufactured Liquid Lightning sulfuric acid drain opener from the shelf of a Walmart in Cleveland, Miss.
According to a lawsuit Mooneyhan filed against Walmart, acid had leaked out of the bottle onto the outside of the sealed, plastic bag Rooto products are sold in. Mooneyhan says she spent two days at a burn center recovering from her injuries.
Her suit claims that the Liquid Lightning packaging did not include chemically resistant components, but rather “a standard aluminum seal,” “a standard plastic cap,” and “a low grade polyethylene bag,” all of which would “dissolve or disintegrate” when exposed to sulfuric acid.
Mooneyhan’s suit says Walmart “knew or should have known” that the Rooto-manufactured product was deficient. The case is pending, and Walmart has filed a third-party complaint against Rooto, contending that if damages are awarded, Rooto should have to pay.
Walmart did not respond to requests for comment. Rooto officials declined to be interviewed. In an email, Rooto’s chief financial officer, Keith Kopf, wrote that he “can only say that we have been in business since 1946 and that we comply with and meet all regulations.”
Rooto’s president is a 78-year-old South Korean immigrant named Joon Moon, who said in a deposition last year that he purchased the company in the 1970s. Moon has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He has led several companies, and served on the boards of the Michigan International Trade Authority and the Michigan State University Foundation, among other achievements.
Moon and Kopf run Rooto from Las Vegas, but the company also has a factory in Howell, Mich., about 40 miles east of Lansing. In his 2015 deposition, Moon said his company makes about “10 or more different products,” including alkaline- and enzyme-based drain cleaners. The deposition comes from a lawsuit in Queens, N.Y., where Rooto is being sued for alleged negligence in the manufacturing, labeling and marketing of its sulfuric acid drain opener.
In 2011, Moon said in the deposition, the company sold “about a million” containers of sulfuric acid drain opener to hardware store cooperatives, including Ace Hardware, Do It Best and True Value. He said Rooto products at times also had been sold by Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Moon said that Rooto does not track the number of complaints it receives, but estimated that he’s been deposed around 10 times, and testified in at least one trial, in response to personal injury lawsuits involving the company’s sulfuric acid drain opener. Asked to recall those cases, Moon said he couldn’t remember them, and didn’t know if he had any records of them either.
Rooto doesn’t have a website – but that didn’t stop Taillard from tracking down an email address for the company about a week after he and his daughter were burned outside the Shop-N-Save in Benzonia. Over the course of three weeks, Taillard traded emails with Kopf, the chief financial officer, who offered his condolences, then pressed Taillard for more details.
Finally, on Aug. 3, Kopf told Taillard that he ignored the bottle’s warnings to “KEEP IN AN UPRIGHT POSITION” and “DO NOT DROP” and “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.”
“I understand that you may want to consult an attorney,” Kopf wrote, “but we have not lost a suit on this.”
Taillard, for his part, is undeterred, and says he’s spoken with an attorney as well as the CPSC investigator. “It sounds like this is a trend,” he said, “and that simply cannot continue.”