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Consumer class actions get boost from U.S. top court

By Lawrence Hurley and Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Supreme Court gave consumers a victory on Monday by allowing them to proceed with class-action lawsuits alleging that millions of front-loading washing machines they bought suffered from mold or musty odors.

By refusing to hear the appeals in three lawsuits, the court allowed claims against Whirlpool Corp, Sears Holdings Corp and a unit of Germany's BSH Bosch und Siemens Hausgeraete GmbH to move forward as class actions in lower courts.

Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers had urged the Supreme Court to hear the companies' appeals.

The court has in recent years cut back on the ability of plaintiffs to pursue class actions, which can lead to bigger jury awards and settlements than individual lawsuits, in cases against AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

At issue in the washing-machine cases was whether claims about alleged defects in Whirlpool washers, Kenmore-brand washers made for Sears by Whirlpool, and BSH Home Appliance Corp washers were similar enough to be heard at the same time.

Consumers said that the machines did not clean themselves properly, while the companies said only a small number of machines had problems.

Whirlpool said in a statement that it would keep vigorously defending against the lawsuits, which it called an "attack" on American manufacturing.

"The facts remain unchanged: the vast majority of class members have not been harmed and never will be," it said.

Sears said in a statement that it disagreed with the decision and that an "overwhelming majority" of owners of its Kenmore front-loading washers were pleased with them.

BSH declined to comment.

Samuel Issacharoff, a New York University law professor who represents Sears and Whirlpool consumers, called the court's decision "a big win," adding: "There is nothing un-American about manufacturers having to stand behind their products."

OPENING THE DOOR

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago had allowed consumers to pursue respective claims as groups against Whirlpool in Ohio, and Sears in six U.S. states.

Those courts' initial rulings for the consumers were later thrown out after the Supreme Court ruled for Comcast last March over cable TV subscribers who accused it of overcharging them. The court said the proposed Comcast class was too diverse.

The 6th Circuit and 7th Circuit nonetheless later ruled for the washing-machine plaintiffs a second time.

Sears had said the 7th Circuit decision by Judge Richard Posner "opens the door to class actions based on any mass-produced product's failure to meet expectations of a handful of consumers, no matter how few other buyers had the same problem."

Another appeals court, the 9th Circuit, had refused to let BSH appeal a December 2012 ruling by a federal judge in Santa Ana, California, allowing a class action against that company to go ahead.

Whirlpool is based in Benton Harbor, Michigan; Sears in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and BSH Bosch in Munich.

The cases are BSH Home Appliances Corp v. Cobb et al, 13-138; Sears, Roebuck & Co v. Butler et al, 13-430, and Whirlpool Corp v. Glazer et al, 13-431.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington, D.C. and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Amanda Kwan)

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