On July 20, 2015, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois certified a liability-only class of Illinois plaintiffs in a nearly ten-year-old case involving allegedly defective, moldy Kenmore-manufactured Whirlpool Corporation (Whirlpool) washing machines. Only four days after the court granted class certification, the parties filed a motion seeking approval of class settlement.
In 2006, plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that front-loading, high-efficiency washing machines manufactured by Whirlpool and sold at Sears, Roebuck & Company (Sears) under the store’s Kenmore brand name contained a design defect that caused the machines to develop mold that, among other things, contaminated the plaintiff’s clothes. On behalf of themselves and putative class members, plaintiffs alleged breaches of express written warranty and implied warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Act, 15 U.S.C. §2301-2312 and also under Illinois law, 810 ILCS 5/2-313; 314. The Court’s order granting class certification addressed liability only as to plaintiffs’ cause of action for breach of implied warranty under Illinois law.
In its July 20, 2015 order granting class certification, the court rejected Sears’ arguments that class certification was not proper because the washers had different designs. Specifically, the court noted that the design differences were not an obstacle to class certification because Sears did not contend that any of the design changes eliminated the alleged mold problems. The court also rejected Sears’ contention that plaintiffs could not prove a common injury because not all washers built up an excessive amount of mold, holding both that a class can include persons who were not injured and also that, if injured at all, the owners were injured at the point of sale rather than upon experiencing the mold problem.
The case was closely related to multi-district litigation known as In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, involving washers manufactured by Whirlpool for sale under Whirlpool’s brand name. In that matter, the court certified a class of plaintiffs who lived in Ohio owned Whirlpool’s “Duet” model, front-loading washers. There too, class was certified for matters of liability only. Ultimately, a jury returned a verdict for Whirlpool in the Ohio litigation.
Whirlpool’s success in Ohio notwithstanding, on July 24, 2015, Sears asked the court in Illinois to approve a class-wide settlement, authorizing compensation in the form of (1) reimbursement for paid qualifying repairs; (2) reimbursement for replacement; (3) compensation for qualifying service contracts and for excessive repairs. Sears has also agreed to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees to defendants, in an amount to be determined by the court. The court is requested to rule on the settlement after conducting a fairness hearing.
The court’s ruling regarding class certification marked the end of years-long litigation related to whether or not claims regarding these design defects in washers are appropriate for class adjudication, and may have precipitated the resolution of what has been a hard-fought litigation. Accordingly, the parties’ agreement to settle their disputes on the heels of the court’s order underscores the importance of issues related to class certification in high profile consumer class actions.