Maine’s attorney general is challenging Sears, Roebuck & Co. to tell customers up front how long its big-ticket appliances will last in a sweeping consumer suit that is scheduled to go to trial today.
In a six-part complaint, state prosecutors are charging Sears with illegal bait-and-switch marketing techniques. They allege that shoppers were lured to eight Maine stores by falsely advertised sales offers and then encouraged to buy more expensive products. Sears calls the complaint “preposterous.”
Atty. Gen. James E. Tierney’s office also alleged that Sears pressured customers to buy maintenance contracts on their purchases that merely duplicate warranty rights that come with the product. Sears also denies that charge.
Perhaps the most controversial issue in the case, to be tried in Kennebec County Superior Court before Justice Donald G. Alexander, is the state’s effort to win for Sears customers a pledge of product reliability, or an “implied warranty.” Product reliability, Tierney said, means “how long does the manufacturer say this ought to last?”
Sears attorney John J. O’Leary Jr. said, however: “There isn’t a court in the country that supports their proposition.”
Tierney, who describes himself as a longtime customer of Chicago-based Sears, the nation’s largest retailer, said: “This isn’t an academic exercise. We’re going to come out of the case with a more precise definition of what an ‘implied warranty’ is.”
Unique State Role
O’Leary said Tierney is seeking to establish that Sears products “ought to last for a specific period of time and the implied warranty ought to cover it. What they’re after is something I don’t think that’s ever been done or (is) doable.”
A court ruling for the state, O’Leary said, “would make Maine the only state . . . that has this sort of implied warranty law.” But he said no retailer can reasonably guarantee reliability for “a specific period of time of the order of magnitude that they’re offering.”
The state wants to argue that “every given appliance is going to last a given period of time,” O’Leary said. But he said that can’t be done because of a variety of factors, including how different people use the products.
The products include refrigerators, washers and dryers, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens.
In the Sears case, said Assistant Atty. Gen. Peter J. Brann, the state will insist that such an implied warranty extend at least beyond the three-year maximum maintenance contract that is offered on many products at the time of purchase.
In its formal complaint, the state acknowledged that “the period of time for which (a Sears product) should function in accordance with the implied warranty will vary according to the type and frequency of use.”
But prosecutors argued that “if not abused, and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s written specifications provided at the time of sale, each Sears product should function properly for its intended purposes for the duration of the initial term of each Sears service contract.”
Filed a Year Ago
Meanwhile, the state also is asking for court orders to bar deceptive trade practices and for Sears to offer to refund the proceeds from service contracts that duplicate existing warranty rights.
Maine filed its complaint against Sears in March, 1984. In lengthy pretrial proceedings, prosecutors obtained tens of thousands of documents, most of which have been guarded from public view by a court protective order. Sears maintains that disclosure would harm its competitive position by breaching trade secrets.
At a pretrial conference on April 16, the judge in the non-jury trial indicated that he would intervene to clarify the implied-warranty questions on Sears appliances.
“I’m going to be asking Sears in each of these 11 appliance areas what the useful life of each of these appliances is,” Alexander told lawyers for both sides. “I know this is possibly a difficult question, but it goes right to the heart of this case, and I think it cuts through a lot of legalisms.”