Appliance retailer HHGregg is facing allegations that it improperly installed dryer vents in potentially thousands of consumers' homes, despite warnings that such vents could cause fires or other safety hazards.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims the Indianapolis-based retailer installed plastic or foil "slinky" vents, even though many dryer manufacturers specifically call for heavy metal ducts to be used.
The suit asks that HHGregg replace the improper vents and pay an unspecified amount in fees and damages.
"Our case is really, really simple," said Thomas A. Hargett, a local attorney representing the plaintiffs. "There is a simple contract: I'm paying you to install my dryer and that presupposes that you do it the way the manufacturer says it should be done."
The case, which is seeking class-action status, was filed in May. Attorneys filed similar suits against home appliance retailers Lowe's Cos., Home Depot and Sears Holdings Corp. in each corporation's home state.
If judges eventually grant class-action status in each of the suits, "millions" of people could be affected, Hargett said.
"I honestly believe that this series of cases will change the way that the big retailers do their business relative to installing their dryers," he said. "There will be less fires because of this litigation, courts will not allow these major retailers to install unsafe dryers because it's faster, easier and more profitable. They're going to make them do it right."
Representatives from HHGregg and each of the other companies declined to comment, saying they don't discuss pending litigation.
HHGregg uses its own employees to install appliances locally, but hires subcontractors in some other cities. The company currently charges a $69.99 fee to install dryers and other appliances.
Plaintiffs Ryan and Amanda Mack allege in the suit that they bought a $565 dryer at HHGregg's 96th Street store last year and paid $59.99 for installation.
They later realized, however, that installers attached a flexible metal foil vent, even though the dryer included a sticker that explicitly stated, "Use a heavy metal vent ... do not use metal foil vents."
By ignoring the warning, the suit says, the company voided manufacturers' warranties and created a dangerous situation where the dryers could catch on fire or cause other safety problems.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that clothes dryers account for 15,500 fires annually.
Most fires develop when heat can't escape from the dryer, said John Drengenberg, an engineer and consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories, an Illinois-based not-for-profit that sets product safety standards.
Plastic dryer vents and the foil variety have a tendency to collapse more easily, trapping the heat in the dryer. Lint buildup also can cause problems, since it obstructs air flow, creating a fire risk.
"The problem is that you have a lot of heat and a lot of combustible materials," he said. "If you don't vent it properly, you get a situation where you're just going to ask for problems."
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which represents dryer makers, takes the position that plastic vents should not be used, said Jill A. Notini, vice president of communications.
UL has a similar standard, and requires appliance manufactures to include a note in their instruction manuals telling consumers to avoid such vents.
Drengenberg said the organization does give manufacturers the option to allow flexible foil vents, but he said the rigid, heavy-metal variety is still best.
"It won't collapse as easily, it cannot be crushed as easily, and it's smooth on the inside so it has less of a tendency to collect lint," he said.
Lawyers plan to touch on those standards, and others, when arguing their case.
Even so, experts say these cases are difficult to win.
"The large corporations who are usually defendants hire lawyers who are told to turn over every rock, and they throw immeasurable resources to try to trip up the plaintiffs," said Irwin Levin, a class-action attorney and managing partner of the Indianapolis law firm Cohen & Malad LLP.
Hargett said it will be years until a decision is made in this case.
In the meantime, his team filed a motion to immediately stop HHGregg from installing any more plastic or foil vents. The suit alleges that the company continues to install the wrong type of vents, despite the warning labels.
Hargett also is asking people to peek behind their appliances to see what's back there. He's betting that a significant amount of people have a vent that was improperly installed.
"As we started the investigation, we did not talk to a single person who had it done correctly in their home," he said. "And we talked to a lot of people."