Supreme Court Passes on Product Liability Case

Sears had petitioned in class action ruling.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined to take up three related petitions filed by Sears Holdings Corp., Whirlpool Corp. and BSH Home Appliance Corp. that have implications for retailers, manufacturers and consumers involved in product liability claims.

The High Court’s refusal to hear the cases essentially gave consumers a victory and allowed product liability lawsuits against the three companies in the lower courts to advance.

Consumers are seeking class certification for lawsuits filed against Sears in six states, claiming that the front-loading washing machines they bought from Sears had a design defect causing musty odors, as well as a manufacturing defect that interrupts the operation of the machines with “false error codes.” The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a class action is “the more efficient procedure” based on a single common question — “whether there is a defect,” according to court papers.

In its petition to the court, Sears asked the justices to consider whether individual product claims can be certified as a class based solely on a “single, common question,” such as a product defect, without addressing any of the individual issues, and whether a class may be certified on breach of warranty claims where it is “undisputed that most members did not experience the alleged product defect and where the injury would have to be litigated on a member-by-member basis.”

The Retail Litigation Center, an arm of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes among its members Wal-Mart Stores Inc., VF Corp. and Target Corp., urged the court in an amicus brief to “address inequities in the lower courts’ application of class certification standards to product liability disputes.” The RLC said in November that the appeals court decisions in the Sears and Whirlpool cases “saw lower courts certify classes in product liability disputes under lax standards, when a majority of members suffered no discernible injury.”

Deborah White, president of the RLC, said those decisions “expose retailers to significant risk and will hurt consumers by eliminating services.”