State prosecutors, pressing a sweeping consumer action complaint against the world's largest retailer, challenged Sears, Roebuck & Co. to declare Monday just how reliable its major appliances are.
As opening arguments began in Kennebec County Superior Court, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rufus Brown asserted that maintenance service agreements offered to buyers of Sears' refrigerators, washing machines and other big-ticket items merely duplicate coverage already available under existing warranties.
The state believes that, by Maine law, an undeclared but "implied" warranty extends at least beyond the three-year maximum maintenance contract that is offered on many products at the time of purchase. The attorney general says Sears should be able to specify a minimum period during which appliances will operate without malfunction.
Brown also charged that eight Maine stores of the Chicago-based retail chain regularly engage in "bait-and-switch" sales tactics, in which consumers are lured by advertisements for bargain-priced items, then told that the item is not immediatedly available and pressured to buy higher-priced substitutes.
In his opening presentation, Sears lawyer John J. O'Leary Jr. said the state is trying to hold Sears to a warranty standard that does not exist. If the state wants the expected durability of appliances to be specified, it should seek the change through formal rule making or the Legislature, he said.
O'Leary also disputed the state's allegations of deceptive sales practices.
The Sears attorney said a ruling in Maine's favor would not necessarily cause similar suits in other states, but he warned that it could encourage the same interpretation of warranty coverage that Sears rejects in this case. Most other states have implied-warranty laws, he said.
Attempt to 'Focus' Issues
The jury-waived trial, nearly two years in the making, began Monday with Judge Donald G. Alexander delaying opening statements for 30 minutes to give both sides a list of questions to review.
Saying he was trying to "focus" the issues put forth by the two sides, Alexander chastised lawyers on both sides for failing to trim their voluminous filings and to settle undisputed matters.
In his questions for Sears, Alexander asked whether the company's big appliances can be expected to operate for 10, 15 or more years without major repairs.
Alexander asked the state whether Sears should be held liable for repairing all defective merchandise during its expected useful life.
The justice warned that hostility between the two parties threatened to make the case "a difficult one and one that may be longer than necessary."
He said he was "very disappointed at the lack of ability the parties demonstrated" in resolving non-controversial issues.
The case went to trial nearly 22 months after the state began its investigation of Sears' sales practices.