Sears to fix 4 million potentially unstable ovens

By Michael Sorkin
Wednesday, Feb. 20 2008

Sears has agreed to install safety brackets on its stoves in some 4 million
households to settle a class-action lawsuit in Madison County. Plaintiffs said
it could cost the retail giant more than $500 million, although Sears disputes

Meanwhile, consumer advocates are pressing the government’s safety agency to
warn the public that freestanding or slide-in stoves can tip and have killed or
injured at least 100 children and adults.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission hasn’t even warned the public about it,
much less done anything about it,” said Joan Claybrook, head of the consumer
group Public Citizen.

The problem is that the modern kitchen stove is being made so light, to keep
costs down, that it can be unstable unless secured to a wall or floor.

Consumer groups say Sears and other retailers often fail to connect safety
brackets when delivering a stove.

That can be both a safety hazard and illegal. Most communities have adopted
safety codes requiring stoves to be secured.

But millions of homeowners are unaware of the problem, and that has led to
serious injuries in some cases.

Raven Holbert, 3, of Sedalia, Mo., died in December 2001 after she opened the
stove door in her family’s kitchen while reaching for cookies on a counter top,
court records say.

The stove was not turned on. But it collapsed from the girl’s weight, trapping
her inside.

Her father was nearby, quickly got her out and rushed her to a hospital within
minutes. But a blow to her chest from the falling stove left her fatally
injured. She died two days later.

Most stoves made before the 1970s or 1980s were too heavy and sturdy to easily
tip over.

But many newer stoves are so light that some cooks have been seriously burned
by a tipping appliance after placing a Thanksgiving turkey on an open stove
door, safety experts say.

Manufacturers and retailers are aware of the potential danger, and installers
are told to connect the included L-shaped brackets. Consumer advocates hope the
settlement with Sears, the nation’s largest seller of stoves, will push other
retailers and manufacturers to take similar action.

Many of the contractors who install stoves tell new owners that the brackets
are unnecessary, says Dan Sciano, a lawyer in San Antonio who specializes in
oven-tipping cases but was not involved in this one.

The Safety Commission says it has records of 33 deaths and 84 injuries due to
tipping stoves, from 1980 through 2006. But Sciano and other consumer advocates
say many injuries are not reported.

Consumer groups accuse the safety agency of not cracking down on manufacturers
or warning the public.

“They are just cozy with the industry,” said Claybrook, of Public Citizen.

A spokeswoman says the safety agency “has put out messages that consumers
should use the brackets offered to them” and considers voluntary standards

In Madison County, Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder approved the class-action
settlement with Sears on Friday, after two years of mediation and negotiations.

Sears has agreed to fix at least 3.9 million stoves — all brands of ovens it
sold and installed from July 2, 2000, through last Sept. 18. Sears also will
install anti-tip devices on all ranges sold and installed for three years

The settlement provides three options:

— Sears will install an anti-tip device free of charge.

— Sears will pay $100 to anyone who has paid Sears or a third party to install
the device.

— Consumers who don’t want the device can opt for a $50 gift card to be used to
purchase and install a new, regularly priced stove from Sears.

“The whole idea is to solve the problem,” said Stephen Tillery, a lawyer from
St. Louis, at one of the four law firms that brought the class action.

The lawyers will split $17 million in fees, according to the settlement.

Leroy J. Grossman, former professor of economics and dean of the business
school at St. Louis University, was hired by the plaintiffs to analyze the
settlement. He estimated it will cost Sears more than $544 million in fees and

If that estimate is correct, he said, fees to the lawyers represent just 3
percent of the total cost of the settlement.

Sears issued a statement Tuesday saying the company disputes “many aspects of
the case, including the value on this settlement — which Sears estimates to be
a small fraction of what plaintiff’s counsel estimates.” | 314-340-8347