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Court OKs Class Actions to Air Dirty Laundry Against Sears Washers

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 15, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Sears Roebuck and Company has some angry washing machine customers. The retailer, best known for its wide range of appliances, is facing class action lawsuits from customers across six states.

Tuesday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the customers had enough in common to pursue their claims through two separate class action claims, The Chicago Tribune reports.

The suits against Sears both arise from alleged defects in Kenmore-brand Sears washing machines sold in overlapping periods beginning in 2001 and 2004. There two distinct claims: the mold claim and the control unit claim.

The district court denied mold claim certification granted control unit claim class certification.

In reviewing certification, the Seventh Circuit clarified the role of "predominance" in class action litigation.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) conditions the maintenance of a class action on a finding by the district court "that the questions of fact or law common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members." If there are no common questions or only common questions, the issue of predominance is automatically resolved. Any other case requires "weighing" unweighted factors, which is the kind of subjective determination that usually is left to the district court, subject to light appellate review.

The mold claim pertains to all Kenmore-brand front-loading "high efficiency" washing machines manufactured by Whirlpool Corporation and sold by Sears since 2001. Plaintiffs claim the machines don't clean themselves adequately due to a design defect, which causes a smelly mold to form in the machine's drum.

Sears argued that Whirlpool -- the actual manufacturer of the machines -- made a number of design modifications over the years in question, and different models are differently defective. As a result of the varied designs, Sears argued that common questions of fact concerning the mold problem and its consequences do not predominate over individual questions of fact.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the mold claim class, concluding, "It is more efficient for the question whether the washing machines were defective -- the question common to all class members -- to be resolved in a single proceeding than for it to be litigated separately in hundreds of different trials."

The appellate court agreed with the district court that the control unit group should be allowed to proceed with their class action claim.

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