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A federal government agency has taken and unusual step. They are suing the founder of a toy company over product safety concerns - and recently, he filed a countersuit. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says Buckyballs - if you're not familiar with them - these are clusters of magnetized balls, are a serious danger to children.
Ilya Marritz from member station WNYC has the story.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Call them brainteasers, amusements, or gifts for dad, just don't call these little magnetic beads a toy.
CRAIG ZUCKER: Well, first of all, it was never a toy, so I wouldn't use that word; it was always an adult desktop gift item.
MARRITZ: That's Craig Zucker, CEO of the now-defunct company that sold Buckyballs.
What exactly is a Buckyball? It's a high-power nickel-plated magnetic bead.
ZUCKER: And they're really about -I would say - the size of a BB, is what I'd compare it to.
MARRITZ: Starting in 2009, Craig Zucker's Buckyballs started to appear in gift shops, in packs of 125 or more. They quickly became a hit, complete with YouTube videos.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Hey, everybody, I just got these cool little things.
I'm going to show you how to make this pentagon ring thingamajig.
MARRITZ: Now remember how Zucker called Buckyballs adult desktop gift items? That's where he ran into trouble.
Because even though Buckyballs were marketed to adults, and contained a warnings for children under the age of 14, kids quickly got their hands on Buckyballs, and on similar products sold by competitors that were also new on the market.
Soon, the Consumer Product Safety Commission began receiving disturbing reports of internal injuries.
There have been no reported deaths, but the CPSC estimates over a thousand kids and teens have been sent to the hospital after swallowing magnetized balls. Like 2-year-old Braylon Jordan, who had to have most of his small intestine removed. His mother appeared in a video for Consumer Reports.
MEAGHIN JORDAN: Braylon isn't allowed to eat anything so he has to be fed through a tunnel catheter in his chest.
MARRITZ: The thing that makes highly magnetized balls so dangerous is the same thing that makes them fun to play with: they're far more powerful than ordinary magnets.
Scott Wolfson is a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
SCOTT WOLFSON: They're like a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit. They actually will start forming holes in the form of an infection in the small intestine because they actually don't connect until they get into the tissue of the small intestine.
MARRITZ: In July 2012, the CPSC sued the company that makes Buckyballs, and advised retailers to stop selling them. A few months later, Zucker decided to close down his business. The CPSC then took the rare step of suing Craig Zucker, the founder, for the full cost of a recall and refund, estimated at about $57 million.
You don't have $57 million?
ZUCKER: I do not.
MARRITZ: Zucker says he's not particularly worried about protecting his bank account. For him, it's about the principle.
ZUCKER: And that's what's so scary about what's happening here. Future entrepreneurs look at this and why would they want to take on this kind of risk? Why would you go and create products knowing that potentially you're personally liable if something goes wrong?
MARRITZ: Absolutely, Zucker says, he feels badly about the kids who have been injured. But he says balloons send more kids to the emergency room every year than magnetized balls ever did. And they haven't been recalled.
The case has sharply divided the legal community. Nancy Nord, a former member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, recently criticized her former agency in The Wall Street Journal, writing of Zucker: I hope he wins his suit.
Pamela Gilbert, a former executive director of the CPSC under President Clinton, says cases like this are so rare it's hard to say what will happen.
PAMELA GILBERT: I have no idea. It's just so unusual that there's not a lot of precedent out there.
MARRITZ: Toy companies, Gilbert says, almost always comply with recalls voluntarily, out of concern for their reputation.
But, Craig Zucker is now celebrated - at least in some conservative legal circles. He's now selling so-called Liberty Balls - bigger magnets you can't swallow - to raise money for his legal defense. And he says he's also been approached for movie rights.
Ilya Marritz, for NPR News in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.