Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

A broken refrigerator and the store that took too long to make things right

Fran and John Carleton were photographed in their kitchen in Canton — without their troublesome refrigerator.
Fran and John Carleton were photographed in their kitchen in Canton — without their troublesome refrigerator.Jonathan Wiggs/globe staff/Globe Staff

Three months ago, Fran Carleton’s refrigerator stopped cooling. She called Sears, which dispatched a technician who quickly concluded the compressor and other parts needed replacement, at a cost of $635.

Carleton paid on the spot, and the technician ordered the replacement parts.

A couple of days later, another Sears technician arrived at her Canton home and installed the new parts.

The refrigerator cooled overnight but conked out again the next day.

Sears sent another technician a day later. This one pulled apart Carleton’s refrigerator for the third time before deeming it not fixable because of a leak in a location that was impossible to reach.


Carleton, 79, a retired school guidance counselor who raised four children, wasn’t happy about all the disruption, which included storing perishables in a neighbor’s spare refrigerator. But she and her husband, John, assumed that Sears, a longtime major retailer of appliances, knew what it was doing.

After spending $1,500 on a new refrigerator at Best Buy (“I wasn’t going back to Sears”), Carleton set about getting back the $635 she paid for the repair job that didn’t fix her old refrigerator. What followed were weeks of long waits on the phone, unreturned calls, and, when she actually got to talk to a person, confusing and contradictory directions on how to proceed.

Finally, on May 15, a Sears customer service representative asked “where’s the [broken] refrigerator now?”

“It’s gone,” Carleton said. “It was taken away when the new one was delivered.”

“Well, that’s the problem,” the representative said. “Sears will need the parts returned before we can credit you.”

Was Sears really holding her responsible for the third technician’s failure to remove the new replacement parts? Was it suggesting that she should have gotten down on the floor with her tools and done it herself?

“I was shocked,” Carleton said. “Sears was taking no responsibility. They made it sound like it was my responsibility. That’s what really frosted me.”


Carleton’s demand for a refund had begun six weeks earlier, the moment she was told her four-year-old refrigerator — with its one-year warranty — could not be fixed.

Nobody from Sears had ever said anything about returning the parts.

“I expected Sears to honor the deal it made with me, not charge me for something I didn’t get,” she said during my visit to her home.

Carleton contacted me in frustration. And after I relayed the facts to a Sears manager, the company immediately backed down, processed a credit, and apologized.

How could such a situation happen? The Sears manager I spoke with said there were multiple breakdowns, including the third technician’s failure to process the refund on the spot and a customer service representative’s failure to properly file Carleton’s refund request.

I asked her what consumers should do when they hit a wall trying to get fair treatment. She said it’s important for consumers to get beyond the “frontline” customer service representatives to a supervisor and to provide written accounts of what happened.

Sounds like good advice. But in reality, even the most meticulous of consumers, like Carleton, can get the brush-off.

My advice? Begin documenting everything said between you and the company at the slightest hint of a dispute. Carleton’s contemporaneous notes are a model of clarity and completeness, telling the whole story in chronological order in elegant cursive lettering.


She should have received better treatment.

Speaking of appliances

Home Depot has managed to turn a simple mistake in the delivery of a new washer and dryer, which I wrote about last month, into an ongoing debacle.

It began in February, with a knock on the door of a house in Scarborough, Maine, owned by a Kevin O’Connor. His tenant said he hadn’t been notified by O’Connor of a delivery, but the delivery crew showed him paperwork with the name “O’Connor” and the address of the house he was renting.

So the tenant reluctantly allowed the crew to remove the perfectly good washer and dryer and install new ones. Hours later Home Depot realized its mistake — the appliances were intended for a different O’Connor family on the same street — and removed the new washer and dryer.

But when O’Connor asked for his old appliances back, Home Depot said they had already been crushed into scrap metal. The decent thing for Home Depot to do at that point was to provide a new washer and dryer, preferably with smiles on their faces.

Instead, a Home Depot manager in the South Portland store said the tenant was partially to blame for the delivery mix-up and insisted that the cost of the replacement appliances — $1,200 — be split between Home Depot and the tenant.

After I got involved, Home Depot took full responsibility and publicly promised to pay for the new washer and dryer, plus installation, about $1,500.

Then, inexplicably, a different Home Depot manager tried to renege. That prompted the O’Connor family to increase its demand to $5,000, to compensate them for their time and aggravation.


Home Depot has now agreed to pay that amount — this time without my involvement — though no check has been written yet.

We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.