A federal judge has approved settlement terms in a class action lawsuit looking to hold Sears liable for accusations some of its Craftsman riding lawnmowers caught fire as a result of faulty fuel systems.
According to the settlement, Sears could pay out about $1 million to customers to cover repairs, while paying the attorneys who prosecuted the case $2.75 million.
U.S. District Judge Manish Shah issued an order Jan. 29 in Chicago. Under the deal, Sears will provide up to three free inspections and repairs for 12-18 months for customers who identify problems with certain Craftsman riding mower models bought from Sears any time from 2009-2015, even though the mowers were sold with only a two-year limited warranty. It also will reimburse class members up to $125 for money customers have already spent on repairing fuel systems.
Repairs and inspections will be available to anyone considered in the class without being required to submit a claims form. According to court documents, 7,727 people have already submitted claims for cash reimbursements, which means Sears could pay out up to $965,875 to those lawnmower owners. Out of more than 1 million class members, only eight objected by a Nov. 19 deadline, and only 280 people requested to be excluded.
Shah said he found “all the objections relating to the proposed award of attorneys’ fees and costs to be without merit” and overruled all such objections.
Representing the class are the law firms of Berger Montague PC, Wexler Wallace LLP, and Greg Coleman Law PC. The settlement terms include $2.75 million in legal fees and $483,121 in out-of-pocket expenses. Named plaintiffs Rebecca Rysewyk, Katie Smith, and Brian Van Vooren, as well as a former plaintiff, Mary Rood, will get service awards of $10,000 each.
Rysewyk, Smith and Van Vooren filed a complaint in May 2015 alleging the mowers were built with fuel delivery system components — such as grommets, clamps and lines — that are prone to leaking, which allegedly can result in the mowers bursting into flames. Whether a class member has 12 or 18 months to request their free repairs and inspections depends on when they purchased their mower. The calendar begins concurrent with the effective date of the settlement.
In a preliminary settlement agreement Shah approved in July, Sears promised service technicians “will make reasonable good faith efforts to perform the inspection and repair within 21 days of being contacted by a settlement class member, and each settlement class member can request such service up to three times during the allotted time periods,” based on when they bought their mower.
Also in that July filing, Sears said in-store visits would be free, while in-home service calls would cost the customer $35, which Sears said is a steep discount from its usual rate of $65 to $130 for house calls. The company said 40 percent of people who buy the affected mowers transport the products on their own, implying those customers should be able to bring them back to a Sears service center and avoid the $35 fee.
According to Shah, the parties didn’t negotiate attorney fees until after agreeing on basic settlement terms, and the lawyers are getting 53 percent of what he said they could have requested.
During fact discovery, the plaintiffs’ legal team retained two experts while Sears had four. After expert discovery concluded, Sears filed three different motions for summary judgment trying to get the named plaintiffs’ claims dismissed and a separate motion seeking to exclude the opinions of one of the plaintiffs’ experts.
Sears, which is currently under federal bankruptcy proceedings, has been represented in the action by the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, of Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York.