My mom always told me that if I closed the door on my front-loading washer, it would develop a moldy stink that would be irreversible and would cause my laundry to smell, too. I thought that was an old wives’ tale.
But my mom was right — and so are millions of other Sears customers.
A group of attorneys at the Lieff Cabraser law firm filed class action lawsuits against Whirlpool and Sears, alleging that design flaws in certain front-loading models resulted in washers that “fail to adequately self-clean themselves of laundry residue, resulting in mold or mildew buildup that can cause bad odors and ruined laundry.”
Consumers everywhere knew about the problem. The question of why the machines smelled so bad was for many years unanswered.
The problem was so widespread that mainstream consumer articles discussing the pros and cons of front-loading machines routinely included discussion of the smell.
Some articles even blamed consumers for the problem. This one claims the problem is “Because of you. And where you live. And how you do laundry.”
But before you enter a shame spiral over why you’re doing laundry wrong and why your gym clothes smell like, well, gym clothes, take comfort in this news: It was never your fault.
As it turns out, while the rest of us were busy mixing baking soda formulas and improving laundry room ventilation systems, a group of attorneys in New York spent the last 9 years investigating the design of the machines, which, they’ve argued, caused the infamous funk.
And the better news: If you owned one of the problem machines, manufactured by Whirlpool, Kenmore or Maytag between 2001 and 2010, you may be eligible for a $500 check from the class action settlement, under certain circumstances. If you paid to have your stinky machine repaired, for example, you can be reimbursed for your expenses related to the repair, but you have to prove those expenses.
If you only suffered through the smell, you may qualify for a $50 check or a 20 percent rebate off the purchase of new machines. And if you owned one of the covered washers but didn’t experience problems, you can qualify for a 5 percent rebate off the purchase of new washers.
Attorney Jonathan Selbin, court-appointed lead class counsel in the case, encourages owners to visit the washer settlement website to learn more about their rights.
The litigation is fascinating and took many twists and turns, including two petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court, as the defendants aggressively fought class certification. And while the settlement agreement includes a denial of any wrongdoing by the manufacturer defendants, documents in the public record of the case suggest that the defendants knew the machines were problematic and failed to meet customer expectations.
Plaintiffs alleged that Whirlpool, for example, adopted the term “biofilm” to describe the malodorous mold and mildew growth, and the company admitted in documents it “spreads rapidly and is difficult to stop.” One 2004 document includes company correspondence in which a Whirlpool scientist wrote that the machines “present an ideal environment for bacteria and mold to flourish.”
But as my high school chemistry teacher once said, if you smell something bad, those molecules are actually in the air. So in this case, the smell of mold, mildew and bacteria in the air is not just a smell, but rather evidence that mold, mildew and bacteria molecules were actually circulating in the air.
And you don’t need a degree in biochemistry to know that breathing in mold, mildew and bacteria can make you sick. While consumers complained of “breathable air issues,” documents from the litigation show that Whirlpool’s own engineers expressed concerns about working on the moldy washers. In a 2008 email to company management, one engineer wrote, “I cannot bring washers into the engineering lab that have mold, biofilm, or smell like sh*t. There are a lot of people working in that room and they’ve made it clear that they do not want to get sick.”
Whirlpool, Kenmore and Maytag have since changed the design of their machines, so a machine purchased today should be free from any odor issues. But this settlement means the end of nearly a decade of consumer front-loader woes, with a little validation for those who thought all along they just didn’t know how to do laundry.
To learn more about filing a claim and your rights under the nationwide settlement, visit www.washersettlement.com.