NEW YORK (Reuters) - Whirlpool Corp was found not liable Thursday by a U.S. jury in the first lawsuit to go to trial accusing the company of selling front-loading washing machines containing a design flaw that made them prone to developing mold.
The jury cleared Whirlpool following a three-week trial in federal court in Ohio, according to lawyers for approximately 150,000 residents in that state who were part of the class action against the company.
The class plaintiffs were all Ohio residents who had purchased one of 20 models of front-loading Whirlpool Duet washing machines between 2001 and 2009. They said in their lawsuit that a defect in the machines caused residue to accumulate, leading to mold and musty odors.
The plaintiffs said they were not warned about the problem until after they had purchased the machines and were forced to undertake costly and time-consuming measures to remedy them.
Benton Harbor, Michigan-based Whirlpool has denied that it is liable, and said in court filings that more than 95 percent of customers who had purchased one of the machines had never complained about a mold or odor problem.
In a statement, Eric Sharon, a litigation counsel at Whirlpool, called it a major victory for the company. “While other companies might have opted to settle this case out of court, Whirlpool firmly believed in the rule of law and that the facts were in our corner.”
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jonathan Selbin, said he was disappointed with the verdict and intends to appeal. He noted in an email to Reuters that it was the first of what would likely be dozens of trials over the machines.
“Until Whirlpool takes responsibility for selling defective washers, the fight will continue,” he said.
The company had fought fiercely against a court order that allowed the Ohio consumers to sue as a group, rather than pursue their claims individually. Whirlpool argued that since many of the customers did not actually suffer any harm and had purchased a range of different machines, they did not have enough in common to sue as a group.
The company appealed the class certification decision to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Although the high court originally vacated the decision and sent it back to a lower appeals court for further consideration, the appeals court upheld class certification once again and the Supreme Court denied further review.
The Ohio suit is among 11 that have been consolidated in the Ohio federal court, according to court statistics, and there are additional lawsuits filed in other states.
The case is Glazer v. Whirlpool, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, No. 08-65000.
Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Steve Orlofsky