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Sears Settlement over Tipping Stoves Leads to Calls for CPSC Action

Feb 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Sears has agreed to settle a lawsuit over hazardous stoves that can tip over, resulting in serious injuries to consumers. Under the settlement, Sears could spend in excess of $500 million to install brackets on stoves to prevent them from tipping.  Consumer advocacy groups are praising the Sears settlement, but have also said that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) needs to take more action to protect consumers from appliances and furniture that can tip over far too easily.

According to several consumer groups, including Public Citizen, more than 100 people have been killed or injured from scalding and burns caused by hot foods and liquids spilling from  stove tops, or from being crushed by the weight of a stove that has tipped over.  In an effort to keep prices low, today’s stoves are built to be extremely light, which can make them unstable unless they are bracketed to a wall or floor.  Consumer groups say Sears and other retailers often fail to connect safety brackets when delivering a stove.  While that is unsafe, it can also be illegal, as the majority of communities have ordinances in place that require that such brackets be used to secure the appliances.

According to Public Citizen, manufacturers and retailers are aware of the potential danger, and installers are told to connect the included L-shaped brackets.  Still, many of the contractors who install stoves tell new owners that the brackets are unnecessary. Under the settlement, 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 thereafter.  Consumer advocates hope the settlement with Sears, the nation's largest seller of stoves, will push other retailers and manufacturers to take similar action.

While consumer advocates, including Public Citizen, have said they are extremely pleased with the Sears settlement, they have called on the CPSC to take more action against tipping appliances and furniture.  They say the CPSC has known about the problem for 20 years, but has done little about it.  A spokesman at the CPSC told The New York Times that last year it listed the possible tipping of stoves, furniture and other household items as one of the five greatest hazards facing consumers. It recommended that consumers install brackets to secure ranges and urged the industry to apply its own voluntary safety standards. The commission believes these voluntary measures are working.

But Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, told The New York Times the Sears case highlighted the failure of the commission.  “Voluntary standards have been shown not to work,” Claybrook said. “And mandatory recalls under the agency’s procedures take too long to occur.” Claybrook contends that the CPSC is “too cozy” with the industries it regulates.  

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