Sears Must Face Class Suit on Washer Mold Claims

Sears Holdings Corp. must face a group lawsuit by consumers in six U.S. states claiming the company’s Kenmore-brand washers have a defect that causes mold, an appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago today reversed an earlier ruling that barred consumers from pursuing their claims as a class, or group, action. The plaintiffs contend the front-loading machines, made by Whirlpool Corp. and sold by Sears under the Kenmore brand, don’t clean themselves adequately, leading to mold.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman found that the consumers couldn’t pursue claims in a class action because common issues didn’t predominate over individual questions of fact, a requirement of such suits. The appeals court reversed, saying the consumers’ claim of a defect leading to mold and bad odors was a common issue.

“A class action is the more efficient procedure for determining liability and damages in a case such as this involving a defect that may have imposed costs on thousands of consumers, yet not a cost to any one of them large enough to justify the expense of an individual suit,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner said in eight-page decision.

The court upheld Coleman’s decision allowing consumers to pursue a class action on claims that a defect in the machines’ control unit causes them to stop suddenly.

Six States

The lawsuit covers breach-of-warranty complaints by consumers in six states -- California, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas.

Sears will likely seek a rehearing by the appeals court, Chris Brathwaite, a spokesman for the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based company said in an e-mail. The ruling “conflicts with several established Supreme Court decisions,” Brathwaite said.

“Our service data, and service data reported in media articles, show that an overwhelming majority of our customers have never experienced any mold or odors in these machines, even after many years of use,” he said. “In fact, four of the six plaintiffs in this lawsuit have admitted they’ve had no such problem.”

The appeals court “reaffirmed that when a manufacturer sells a defective product to thousands of consumers, the doors to the federal courts -- and justice -- are not closed just because each consumer only suffered a few hundred or thousands of dollars in damages,” Jonathan Selbin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

The case is Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 11-8029, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Chicago).

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