Product Liability Watch: Appliance Fires an Ongoing Problem

muginmicrowave.jpgMicrowave ovens are in almost every home, and even in a lot of workplaces. Food preparation has been made a lot easier with the use of these devices. The problem is, it also appears they are a serious fire hazard.

Consumer Reports Launches Investigation

Last year, Consumer Reports launched an investigation into appliance fires throughout the country. Our product liability attorneys note that, following a series of records requests to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the investigation revealed some 70 reported fires just involving KitchenAid microwave ovens alone. In 41 of those cases, the appliances reportedly caught fire while not in use.

Investigators were particularly interested in GE and KitchenAid/Whirlpool appliances, as they had the most consumer complaints when it came to fires. Most instances reportedly occurred in 2009 and 2010, though some went as far back as 2002.

In one South Florida gated community, where nearly all the units had installed the KitchenAid KHMS155LSS model, there had been half a dozen instances where microwaves started up unexpectedly, with the inside of the appliance becoming extremely hot, smoking and even melting.

GE was the subject of a class action lawsuit in 2009, which indicated its microwaves were prone to catching fire without warning and had been defective since 2003.

Following Consumer Reports’ expose, Whirlpool did concede there were some instances in which certain models may potentially “malfunction” and start unintentionally or without involvement from the user. Stopping short of issuing a formal recall, the company offered a free repair kit. Firm administrators denied the issue presented a safety concern for consumers because the device has a built-in safety feature that is designed to contain potential heat damage.

Plyler v. Whirlpool Corp.

The company was recently sued in Plyler v. Whirlpool Corp., a case recently reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Here, a man alleged that a 2006 fire that caused him personal injury and damage to his home was the result of a Whirlpool microwave spontaneously catching fire.

In his complaint, the plaintiff asserted he made food in the microwave sometime around 9 p.m. Eight hours later, at around 5 a.m., a house guest awoke the plaintiff to alert him that there was a fire in the microwave. He indicated he saw an orange glow near the top of the unit and there were three small fires inside. He first tried to put out the fire himself, but he eventually had to call firefighters for assistance. He suffered burns injuries, an injured elbow and knee, and suffered the emotional trauma of watching his house burn.

A fire department investigator would later find that the fire originated at the top of the microwave, but could not for certain identify the specific cause. It was labeled “undetermined in the final report.

The man later sued Whirlpool alleging negligent recall (1.8 million of its microwaves had been recalled since 2001 for potential fire risk) and strict liability.

However, when a Whirlpool product safety director was called to testify, he asserted that the only way the microwave could catch fire is if the device had splattered food on the inside that had gone uncleaned for a long time and also if the microwave was running at the time the fire started.

The plaintiff testified that he kept his microwave clean, and he hadn’t run the unit at all after 9 p.m. the night before. Of course, a self-start might have explained this, but it wasn’t a theory presented by the plaintiff.

The jury ultimately decided in favor of Whirlpool, and the appellate court, finding no abuse of discretion or other grounds for a new trial, affirmed.

Despite the disappointing outcome in this case, we fully expect more will be filed, given the pervasiveness of the products and the severity of the potential danger posed.

The Ferraro Law Firm handles defective product litigation nationwide. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources:
Plyler v. Whirlpool Corp., May 5, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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