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Energy labels at heart of legal fight

NEW YORK — After government testing showed that scores of consumer products carrying the Energy Star label did not deserve the listing, a wave of class-action lawsuits was filed against the companies that manufacture the products.

Now, at least one major manufacturer wants Congress to ban the lawsuits and is threatening to withdraw from Energy Star, an Environmental Protection Agency program, unless it gets its way. Consumer advocates say such lawsuits are a healthy form of enforcement.

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A bill filed by Representative Robert Latta, Republican of Ohio, whose district is home to several Whirlpool factories, would prohibit class-action lawsuits if the EPA came up with a remedy, like reimbursing consumers, for products that did not live up to their billing. The bill is co-sponsored by Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, who is honorary co-chairman of the Alliance to Save Energy, which is also backing the change. LG Electronics is a founding member of the group, and Whirlpool is an associate member.

Trial lawyers say the courts are often the only redress consumers have.

“By eliminating consumers’ access to the civil justice system, corporations will not be held accountable in court for swindling customers,” said Sarah Jones, a spokeswoman for the trial lawyers’ group, the American Association for Justice.

Whirlpool did not comment and referred questions to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which said, “EPA already has sufficient authority to protect consumers and make the determination of whether compensation is appropriate.”

Energy Star, created in 1992 to identify efficiency, has been plagued with troubles.

In 2010, congressional auditors tested the system by submitting applications to apply the Energy Star label to ridiculous products, like a gasoline-powered alarm clock. Many of the applications were approved. One company that built refrigerators, LG, disconnected the ice maker during the efficiency tests. It was caught by Consumer Reports magazine.

So Congress ordered changes. Now, products must be checked by an independent, certified laboratory, and they are subject to spot checks.

Scores of labeled products fail and are disqualified, for a variety of reasons.

A common one is that the manufacturer’s test model met the standard, but a change by a parts supplier increased energy consumption during the production run. Sometimes the quality of raw materials has changed, said the EPA, which runs the program with the Energy Department.

LG, Samsung, and Whirlpool have faced class-action suits over products that fell out of compliance, the Alliance to Save Energy said.

But at Consumers Union, the organization that publishes Consumer Reports, Shannon Baker-Branstetter, a specialist on clean energy and climate change, disagreed.

“EPA and DOE can’t be out there all the time,” she said. “Consumers need that backstop of the courts to get redress.”

Class-action suits, she said, are appropriate in cases where “it’s lots of small injuries,” like an appliance that uses a few extra dollars’ worth of electricity every year.

“This is an anti-consumer bill,” said lawyer Anthony Vozzolo, who has two suits pending against Whirlpool.

Rhe Energy Star program is voluntary for the manufacturers.

Supporters of the legislation have raised the idea that some companies will simply drop out rather than risk a costly class-action lawsuit.

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