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This is what happens when stoves go bad

range1.jpgAre you one of the millions of consumers who has a stove installed by Sears in your home? If so, you may be part of a class action lawsuit settlement that entitles you to a “range stability device.” That’s lawyer speak for a simple bracket that secures your stove and keeps it from tipping over and killing or seriously injuring you or someone in your house. Seriously. Since 1980, at least 33 people have been killed and 84 injured after stoves tipped over on them.

While Sears has agreed to come out and install this bracket free-of-charge on as many as 4 million stoves, there are still millions of stoves installed by other companies that susceptible to the same problem. (If you have a Sears stove and qualify as part of the class action, you’ll want to follow the directions at the special settlement Web site).

The design flaw can have some pretty gruesome consequences. The files of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency supposedly in charge of keeping us safe from these types of things, include cases such as toddler who stood on an open oven door, causing the range to tip so that boiling chicken soup spilled on him; a three-year-old who climbed onto the oven door and was killed when the stove fell over on him; and an 88-year-old woman who slipped while she was cleaning her range and grabbed the oven door for support, which cased the stove to tip over, crushing her.

This is from Michael Sorkin’s story, “Sears to fix 4 million potentially unstable stoves,” in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Most stoves made before the 1970s or 1980s were too heavy and sturdy to easily tip over.

But many newer stoves are so light that some cooks have been seriously burned by a tipping appliance after placing a Thanksgiving turkey on an open stove door, safety experts say.

Manufacturers and retailers are aware of the potential danger, and installers are told to connect the included L-shaped brackets. Consumer advocates hope the settlement with Sears, the nation’s largest seller of stoves, will push other retailers and manufacturers to take similar action.

Many of the contractors who install stoves tell new owners that the brackets are unnecessary, says Dan Sciano, a lawyer in San Antonio who specializes in oven-tipping cases but was not involved in this one.

The stoves, however, are just part of the larger systemic problem with the CPSC and its lack of power. The CPSC knew as early as 1980 that stoves were posing a safety hazard but has done virtually nothing to warn the public or force manufacturers to follow stricter safety standards.

Steve Labaton’s story, “Sears case cited by critics of safety panel,” in the New York Times quoted Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on the issue:

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, one of the consumer groups publicizing the settlement, said the Sears case highlighted the failure of the commission and the shortcomings of legislation moving through Congress to strengthen it. By all accounts, the agency has been significantly understaffed and had struggled to monitor the safety of products effectively.

“Voluntary standards have been shown not to work,” Ms. Claybrook said. “And mandatory recalls under the agency’s procedures take too long to occur.”

Ms. Claybrook has criticized both the House and the Senate versions of consumer product safely legislation as failing to do enough. The Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure in October that was denounced by the administration and manufacturers. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has recently said the Senate would consider a bill as early as next week.

Public Citizen filed a petition with the CPSC today, asking the agency to extend the Sears recall to stoves installed by other companies.

If you’re interested in reading some of the supporting documentation, including a copy of the settlement, it’s on the Public Citizen’s site.