A recent Slate article titled, “The Case of the Moldy Washing Machines” by Emily Bazelon, gives an overview of the legal and consumer protection implications of a class action case that visited the Supreme Court earlier this year and may be poised to return.
Whirlpool received more than 1.3 million complaints about its front-loading washing machine since 2003. The complaints stem from smelly mold growing in the machine that doesn’t go away even after repeated cleaning efforts.
Frustrated customers banded together and filed a class action lawsuit. The federal trial court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati allowed the case to proceed in group form. However, defense attorneys for Whirlpool appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court vacated the class certification and instructed the Sixth Circuit to reconsider its decision, the Sixth Circuit reached the same conclusion: the consumers should be allowed to proceed as a class.
We expect that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will push for the Supreme Court to review the decision again. Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions favorable to mega businesses that make it harder for smaller businesses and consumers to bring class action suits against them. If the Supreme Court blocks the consumer class action suit, consumers will be the ones who suffer.
“If you buy a $1,000 appliance expecting it to last for 10 years only to find that it’s faulty, can you get back at least a few hundred dollars, or does the company get to keep your money, and everyone else’s, too? That’s the sucker punch the consumer class action blocks. Unless they can band together, each customer walks away with nothing. As Judge Posner wrote in a 2004 opinion: ‘The realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.’”