Gretchen Schuler, VP of Insurance Risk Management and Technical Documentation, Invacare Corp.
Though it’s a global company that employs 5,400 employees and earns revenues of $1.35 billion annually, Invacare is all about serving its customers, who rely on the company’s wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators, lifts, and beds to make their lives easier and more fulfilling. CLM Fellow Gretchen Schuler explains how her legal and consumer affairs department greases the wheels to keep things moving.
Q. What makes your department unique?
A. We’re a small group, but we’re set up efficiently. I handle most of the litigation, but also the global insurance program and our global technical writing program, which includes our owners’ manuals and labeling related to our products. We also have a claims engineer who not only handles claims, but also helps with pre-litigation inspections. Our third team member is a consumer specialist who handles allegations of injury or property damage before litigation is initiated. This truly is the position that gets a lot of work done. At the end of the day, given the needs of our clients, this specialist’s main concern is getting the product fixed or replaced so the person who is relying on it can literally get up and running. Often, our products are vital to our customers’ lives. So this consumer specialist tries to resolve the issues first with the product, then with the claim itself. All in all, it’s a bit of a different setup than you might find somewhere else.
Q. You manage the legal department and approve the manuals for your products. What are you looking for in those reviews?
A. First is safety, followed closely by industry/regulatory requirements. It also needs to be understandable. From my perspective, I’m reading it as if I will have to defend it. So I always ask myself, “Does this make sense?” I also look at the manuals through the lens of prior claims history. It’s an evolutionary process, so you have to constantly ask if there is a lesson to be learned or something that we can do to improve. I also look at ways of labeling our products since it cannot be assumed that everyone who buys something from us will read the manual. The literature that accompanies your products always needs to be reviewed and scrutinized for potential areas of improvement. This is a never-ending process.
Another big issue for us is the failure-to-warn component, which is very common in lawsuits today. You can only put so many warning labels on a product, so you need to make sure the manual is concise but complete. After you do that, you have to make sure it’s actually given to the user. Because we don’t sell directly to the public, we have to make sure that the dealers who do get our manuals and written instructions place them into the hands of the final users. Making sure we impress upon our sellers that the manual for, say, a power wheelchair, is crucial for understanding how to use it and gain the maximum medical benefit. More importantly, it explains how the chair can be used safely and how to make it last as long as possible.
Q. Describe a typical day for you.
A. My day is broken into different pieces and, as such, it is never boring. There is a piece of my day related to claims and litigation for product liability issues; there is a piece that deals with the insurance (we’re going through a renewal now); and there is a piece related to the technical writing component in terms of the previously mentioned owners’ manuals, but also in the form of marketing materials. We have to make sure that, from our perspective, we’re not making claims that contradict the safety side of things. I also spend time attending design reviews and risk assessments related to product design and changes.
Q. How do you avoid being the department that says, “No”?
A. There’s the eternal struggle of straddling the line between being viewed as the “anti-sales” department and supporting the company as a whole. We work hard to be a partner in the process—but whether or not we succeed in that might depend on whom you ask in the company at any given time.
Q. Have you ever taken a risk and turned it into an opportunity?
A. When we deal with consumer claims directly, we use it as an opportunity to also help them avoid issues moving forward, such as making sure they get maintenance on their products. We try to use a negative experience to make sure they keep using our products. If a customer has a bad experience but you do something about it—regardless of whether it’s our fault or a user’s mistake—we try to turn those incidents into something positive.