Consumer groups 'ecstatic' over Sears settlement, despite opt out of 4,896 stove owners

Steve Korris Jan. 24, 2008, 3:17pm



Four thousand eight hundred and ninety-six stove owners took the trouble to renounce a Madison County class action settlement between Sears and attorney Stephen Tillery.

Although Tillery estimated the value of the settlement at more than $500 million, an astounding number of class members wanted no part of it.

Instead of simply ignoring a notice they received in November, they requested exclusion in letters to settlement administrator Rust Consulting of Minneapolis.

Exclusions poured in from every corner of the nation, filling 60 pages in tiny type.

At a Jan. 15 settlement hearing, Tillery interpreted the widespread rejection as a sign that he drafted a successful class notice.

"People read their mail," he told Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder. "There was no problem with notice."

Tillery lamented the sad state of class action litigation while accepting a $17 million class action fee from Sears.

"The court is aware of appellate decisions, Supreme Court decisions," he told Crowder.

"These are not necessarily the happiest of moments for plaintiffs in class actions in the United States today," he said.

Tillery sued Sears in 2004, claiming that if anyone placed too much weight on an open oven door, the whole stove would tip forward.

Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron granted preliminary approval and set a final hearing.

In November, after Rust Consulting mailed notices to class members, Byron recused himself from the settlement hearing.

Chief Judge Ann Callis assigned the case to Crowder.

At the hearing Tillery introduced Texas attorneys Roger Mandel, Dan Sciano and Blake Beckham as originators of litigation over tipping stoves.

"I think Mr. Sciano has 640 banker boxes of a library involving this," Tillery said.

Sciano told Crowder the first case was in Rhode Island in 1968.

"The lightness of the ranges developed in the '50s and the '60s," Sciano said, "with the California oven doors where the doors got bigger."

Tillery said, "Eventually Mr. Beckham and Mr. Sciano thought that there had to be something done on a more global basis to stop what was going on.

"In my entire practice I have never seen a process like this that went on for as long, that was as arduous, and that was so up and down.

"I finally said basically – pardon my language – the hell with it and we're going on with a class hearing."

After a hearing, he said, "the discussions proved a bit more fruitful."

Tillery said it wasn't about big money.

"In all sincerity with this court, giving money to the class doesn't solve the problem," he said.

"The primary focus was really what the court would look at as injunctive relief where we sought from the very beginning to have Sears come in and do what we thought was the right thing to do."

He said class members would have most of the year to ask for installation of a bracket.

"For the first time in my career I am part of a settlement where we have achieved complete satisfaction for our class in every respect," he said.

He said a settlement with Sears sent a message to competitors to do the same thing.

"There are consumer groups in the United States who are ecstatic about this process, as you can imagine," he said.

He said the settlement included reimbursement up to $100.

He said the value of a settlement isn't the amount of money specifically paid but is "the fund of monies made available to the class."

In this case, he said, that was more than $500 million.

He said a $17 million fee for class counsel was "barely three percent" of the total.

He offered as evidence photographs of accident victims.

Sears counsel Larry Hepler objected to the photos.

Crowder said she would admit them.

She said she read all filings pertinent to the settlement.

"I was impressed with the level of commitment on the part of both the plaintiffs and of Sears to fashion a resolution that protects children and elderly and any other individual from injury, perhaps over and above what standards may have required in the industry," Crowder said.

Stove owners who did not exclude themselves can file claims through Sept. 18.

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