U.S. court restores consumers' suit airing Whirlpool washers' laundry


A federal appeals court reinstated a class action lawsuit against Whirlpool Corp on Thursday in a victory for consumers whose group lawsuit had been wiped out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in April reversed an earlier ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that consumers could proceed as a group, known as class action certification, and asked the Sixth Circuit to reconsider its decision.

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Plaintiffs in the Whirlpool lawsuit had alleged that design flaws in the front-loading washing machines caused certain mold to develop and give off a musty odor.

Whirlpool had argued against certifying a class action because there was too much variation between individual plaintiffs, including which models they had purchased and to what extent they were affected.

A federal judge in Ohio certified a class of Whirlpool customers and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld that decision. Whirlpool appealed and the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and asked it to reconsider in light of the Supreme Court's ruling this year in another consumer class action involving Comcast Corp .

In the Comcast case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cable company, saying that two million subscribers in the Philadelphia area did not have enough in common to sue as a group.

On Thursday, the Sixth Circuit affirmed its original decision and said that the Whirlpool plaintiffs could proceed as a class because they shared common issues about alleged design flaws.

The appeals court ruling could affect the owners of nearly 163,000 Whirlpool washing machines sold in Ohio from 2002 until 2009. The case will now go back to the U.S. District Court, where it had been halted during the appeal.

A lawyer for the consumers, Jonathan Selbin, said he was pleased with the Sixth Circuit's "careful and thorough analysis of the facts of the case."

But Whirlpool spokeswoman Kristine Vernier later said the company planned to ask the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit's ruling.

"(T)he Sixth Circuit has taken a direct shot, not just at one company or one industry, but also at American manufacturing as a whole, inventing a rule of liability that will severely damage manufacturing in our country," Vernier said in a statement.

The case is nearly identical to another class action that was reversed and sent back to the lower court by the Supreme Court earlier this year over the same legal questions. That case, which is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, involves a lawsuit by consumers against Sears Roebuck & Co alleging it sold mold-prone washing machines made by Whirlpool.

(Reporting by Jessica Dye; editing by Leslie Gevirtz, G Crosse)