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Seventh Circuit Approves Class Certification in Defective Kenmore Washer Cases – Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.

By November 15, 2012July 18th, 2019Product Liability

As a St. Louis product defect attorney, I was interested to read about a pair of class-action lawsuits that made different defect allegations against the same product. In Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s certification of a class that complained about sudden stoppage of Kenmore washing machines. It also reversed the denial of class certification for another class that alleged a defect that causes mold. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the two actions were different enough that they should have been severed, but found that the questions of law or fact in both classes were predominant, and therefore class certification was most efficient.
The case includes a class of people who own Kenmore front-loading high efficiency washing machines sold by Sears. This class claims the low volume and temperature of the water leads to mold because the machines don’t clean themselves well enough. This leads to bad odors and allergies, the court said. However, Sears successfully argued against class certification because Whirlpool, the actual manufacturer, has made multiple design changes over the years, that lead to different potential defects or possibly no defect. The plaintiffs appealed the denial of that class certification. Separately, the district court did approve class certification for the class that complained the washing machines stop suddenly. These suffer from a known defective manufacturing problem related to their circuit boards; the class alleges Sears knew about it and nonetheless charged each owner hundreds of dollars for repair. Sears appealed the certification of this class, arguing that each plaintiff suffered different amounts of harm.
Writing for the Seventh Circuit’s panel, Judge Posner said it took the case in order to clarify the idea of “predominance” as it affects class certification–that is, the requirement that common questions of fact or law predominate over questions affecting only individuals. In the case of the mold class, the panel said, this was so because the basic question being asked by the litigation is common to the entire mold class: were the machines defective in a way that led to mold? Each member may have a different washing machine design, but those questions are less important than whether the machines were defective. This is a question of efficiency, the court noted. If, as Sears argued, most class members suffered no mold problems, the Seventh said it will be more efficient to certify the class and then enter judgment for Sears. The court applied similar reasoning in upholding class certification for the sudden stoppage class, saying resolution as a class action was most efficient.
As a Missouri defective product lawyer, I’m pleased to see this ruling. Large companies like Sears often fight class certification fervently, because they’re afraid of the costs of defending and losing them. However, as the court said, class certification decisions are not made according to what’s best for defendants; they are made according to what is most efficient, which serves the interests of the court system and ultimately of justice. Of course, the plaintiffs in both classes in this case will have to prove their cases, or they may end up losing the case, as the court suggested, and Sears will end up paying nothing anyway. Class actions are common in cases involving defective consumer products like this, because so many products are sold nationally. As a southern Illinois defective product attorney, I believe this kind of effective resolution is in my clients’ best interests.

If you’ve suffered a serious injury or a loss in the family because of a defective consumer product, call Carey, Danis & Lowe to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential consultation, send us an email or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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