Norcold RV Refrigerator Class Action Lawsuit

Norcold class action

March, 2016:  When I started having trouble with the Norcold refrigerator in my 2012 motorhome, I began researching and ran across this RV forum discussion: Norcold Class Action Suit Settled.  (See my page – Norcold RV Refrigerators – for full report of issues I discovered about mine and Norcold products in general).

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Update November, 2017:  They started mailing settlement checks in July, 2017 and apparently will issue them in four annual installments.  I received my first one and here’s part of what the letter said:

“Enclosed is a check in the amount of $228.90 representing your first of four annual settlement award installments in the Etter et al v Norcold Class Action Settlement. The amount of your settlement award installment has been calculated pursuant to the terms of the Settlement Agreement that was approved by the Court. Pursuant to the settlement and claim form that you submitted, you were allotted 25 of shares in the settlement fund. Based on the total number of claims submitted by all Eligible Claimants, the net value of each share, in the first annual installment, after deduction of court approved fees and expenses, is $9.16 ($37.11 per share in total for all four annual installments). To complete your settlement distribution, you will receive additional checks (not of equal value) on or about July 1, 2018, 2019 and 2020. The total amount that you will receive through these four annual installments is approximately $927.75 (25 shares x $37.11 per share).”

Even though the total replacement cost for my cooling unit was over $2,400, I am a bit surprised the settlement amounts are so high since typically these class action suits don’t net much for the plaintiffs themselves. I’ll let the information below speak for itself about the inadequacy of this to deter Norcold from continuing the same shoddy construction, not to mention not truly compensating those who lost so much due to Norcold doing everything they could for years not to admit responsibility or liability.

Update May, 2016:

Despite the objections of some of the named plaintiffs in the original complaint, The judge agreed to the settlement proposal (see 3/29/16 Order).   Here’s the current status and what needs to be done to participate in the settlement proceeds:  Etter et al v. Norcold, Inc.

See below for reasons why this settlement does not adequately compensate those affected, and also doesn’t do anything to assure that Norcold won’t continue operating in the same old way and continue to put the public in jeopardy, all the while falsely assuring us we are safe using their products.

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Another Norcold Warning (IRV2.com forum – 3/21/16 Update) – From Plaintiff Jeffrey Etter:  Basically the plaintiffs are split into two camps. The ORIGINAL PLAINTIFFS who brought this case (myself included) objected to a highly inadequate settlement that did virtually nothing to resolve the danger faced by approximately 1,000,000 RV owners who have a potential hydrogen bomb in their RV. The settling plaintiffs (not the original group who brought this case) wanted to take the inadequate money and run – with a massive settlement for the two firms who were willing to sell out the interests of the class for their fees.  For most of the original plaintiffs this has never been about the amount of money that we might be awarded. It is about the case that there are 1,000,000 RV owners out there that have a potential explosive bomb waiting to go off and burn their RV to the ground – and possibly maim or kill them and their family members. This problem needs to be resolved for everyone who owns a Norcold refrigerator unit. But it won’t be if the attorneys are worried about their fees and a few plaintiffs are willing to accept a personal settlement to their benefit and the detriment of the class.

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Dissident Plaintiffs Want $33M Fridge Settlement Tossed (3/16/15) – A group of plaintiffs in a proposed class action against Norcold over allegedly defective refrigerators asked a California judge on Friday to deny preliminary approval of a proposed $33 million settlement, saying that the companies have misrepresented their financial condition. “The refrigerators continue to catch on fire at a rate of four a week … and this settlement does nothing to address that continuing public safety concern.”

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Background:

In reading over the Original Complaint filed 12/12/12, the former litigation legal assistant in me went a little crazy.  I’d worked for a legal malpractice attorney for over 10 years and I thought I had heard it all, but I could hardly believe how long this company knew of the dangers inherent in their products and how they chose to handle it.  Surely this is one of the worst cases of corporate irresponsibility I’ve ever heard of!

Here are just some of the things that make my blood boil, some direct quotes and paragraphs from the lawsuit and some my recap.  Whoever reads the details of this case, whether they have a Norcold refrigerator or not, should be outraged, in my opinion.

The Petition addresses the recalls Norcold has done and in order to keep these pages organized, easy to read and helpful as possible, I broke out a separate page about Norcold Refrigerator Recalls, so check that out for the details on the different recalls done and their effects outlined in the Petition and from other sources.

Basic Info:

complaints buttonsection symbol3.  Since at least 1997, Defendants have designed and sold three models of gas absorption refrigerators, all of which share common design and manufacturing defects that create a substantial risk of fire when the refrigerators are used as designed and for their intended purpose. As of the date of this Complaint, Defendants are receiving new fire claims at a rate of 1 to 2 per day.

section symbol5.  Rather than eliminate the design and manufacturing defects … or provide adequate warning of potential safety risks… Defendants instead sought to conceal and minimize the dangers inherent in the…design and operation.

section symbol28.  All gas absorption refrigerators share the same technology, which involves a process whereby a solution of ammonia, water, sodium chromate and hydrogen gas is heated until it boils, releasing ammonia gas, which circulates through a series of tubes, (‘cooling unit’).

I can’t understand all the technical terminology, but apparently the steel tubing used in the cooling units is not adequate to endure the stresses during normal operation.  Cracks happen causing flammable ammonia and hydrogen gas under high pressure to leak, resulting in fires.

section symbol32.  Since at least 1999, Defendants maintained databases (Incident Logs, etc.) documenting the fire history and were well aware their defects were causing millions of dollars of property damage, personal injury and even death.  But their strategy was misrepresenting the facts about the nature and number of defects and their effects.  Even their field testing protocol were not representative of actual use conditions and they knew this as well.

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Proposed Settlement Issues:

settlement issuesOrder Denying Without Prejudice Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Approval of Class Action Settlement (10/14/14) – According to this order, the court does not like the allocation between the different refrigerator series owners and says it does not adequately represent the entire Settlement Class.

Redacted Version of Order Denying Without Prejudice Settling Plaintiffs’ Supplemental Motion for Preliminary Approval and Requiring the Filing of a Publicly Available Redacted Version of this Order (6/15/15) – Explanation of the rationale of the Court’s ruling on page 18:  “…the Court finds that the proposed distribution is not fair, adequate and reasonable.”  (“The coupons offered by GM simply do not address the safety defect that formed the central basis of the amended complaint. The failure of this settlement to abate the lingering safety problem, despite the…arguments for some recall or retrofit in the initial complaint, enhances our conviction that this settlement is inadequate.”)

Thankfully, the Court “gets” it:  “An extended warranty that allows consumers to replace a product after it corrodes, cracks and leaks, and potentially catches on fire, does not help remedy the serious safety risks that these consumers currently face.”

Interesting that the Court says that despite Norcold/Thetford position about their insurance coverage and ability to pay a larger settlement than this $33 million proposal, including threats that they might have to file bankruptcy, “The Court, however, nevertheless believes that Defendants may have the ability to pay a higher settlement amount.” Page 22 starts with the redaction of their projected cash flows and profits.

And why wouldn’t they?  They’ve been reaping the benefits of the sales of their defective units and even profiting from the inadequate recall remedies since 1997!

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Norcold Class Action Suit Settled (9/12/14) – A group of people at great personal costs to themselves in terms of time and energy have spent two and a half years to attempt to rectify this situation on behalf of almost 1,000,000 people they will never meet – such as yourselves. We have traveled across the country to be deposed. Spent hours collecting, copying, scanning documents to be entered into evidence. Unfortunately two of the firms involved in this case have constructed a settlement in this case which is a lousy settlement that is objected to by a sizeable number of the named plaintiffs – not because of the amount of money involved in the settlement, but because it leaves hundreds of thousands of people at risk of property loss, personal injury, and potentially death. Out of the $33 million settlement, $8.2 million will go to the attorneys, and $2.5 will go to administrative expenses associated with the administration of the “proposed” class action settlement (e.g. 33%).

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Exploding RV Refrigerators Spark a War Among Plaintiff Lawyers (Forbes – 11/6/14) – “This is a public-safety issue,” said Beard, a trial lawyer who … won a $500,000 settlement in a Norcold case last year. “These refrigerators are burning up at a rate of three to five a week.”  Attorneys … negotiated a $33 million settlement that would pay the average Norcold owner $57 — new, the refrigerators cost $1,000 to $4,000 — and do nothing to force the company to change its design.

Malia’s Comment:  That’s the problem with lawsuits like this – the attorneys get the bulk of the money!

Beard has obtained from Thetford “incident logs” showing the company has processed thousands of claims since the late 1990s, many of them over leaks and fires. A company engineer also testified in a 2012 deposition that Norcold has paid claims on more than 800 fires allegedly caused by its 1200 series refrigerator since 1999. The total payout for all claims since 2001, according to that spreadsheet, is over $60 million.  Yet the company hasn’t changed the design that a Thetford employee acknowledged in testimony lies at the heart of the problem, a metal boiler tube that can crack, allowing flammable gases to escape. (Sweden’s Dometic Group makes refrigerators with a similar design, which have also been the subject of lawsuits and an NHTSA recall.)

(This article also shows pictures of burnt out RVs.)

4/22/16 Update: RV Owners Sue Dometic Over Fire-Prone Refrigerators  (RV Daily Report on a newly filed nationwide class action lawsuit against Dometic).

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Norcold to Pay $33 Million to Settle Class Action Lawsuits (RV Pro Magazine – 12/12/14) – “The lawsuit applies to recalls that affect up to 141,922 units of the 12-series, plus 303,882 N6-series units and 123,879 N8-series units.  A quick calculation reveals that this will leave everyone with $57.93 minus expenses. This doesn’t quite cover the cost of replacing the cooling unit I’m afraid.  (You think?!)

Law 360 Recaps – Has links to several articles about the proposed settlement.

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Misc. Articles and Discussions about Lawsuit:

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Posts from named Plaintiff Jeffrey Etter (JLE Seminole in forum) to set the record straight – Norcold Class Action Suit Settled:  Here’s the problem:  The combination of the insufficient boiler tubing thickness and the corrosive materials used in the chemical solutions cause the boilers to fail over time. There are in excess of 1,000,000 of these defective boilers currently in use in RV’s all across the United States and Canada.

fire riskWe’re not just talking money matters here… FIRE!

JLE:  Some people on these forums want to call into question the number of fires that have been reported. Well, the number of fires reported are actually from Norcold’s own incident logs that were discovered in depositions. These reports are FIRES, not failures of the cooling units. There are THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of additional cooling units that have ruptured and exploded, and not resulted in fires, but have resulted in thousands of dollars worth of repairs to the owners.

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Norcold Faces Class Action over RV and Boat Refrigerators (12/14/12)

Consumers in California and Florida have filed a defective products class action lawsuit alleging that the manufacturers of Norcold gas absorption refrigerators knowingly sold defective refrigerators that posed a serious fire risk but hid that information from the public and federal regulators.  The lawsuit alleges that since 1999, Norcold’s refrigerators have caused at least 2,000 fires resulting in millions of dollars in property damage, personal injury and death. Further it’s alleged that the devices provided by the companies to “fix” the defects were not only ineffective to remedy the propensity of the refrigerators to cause fires, but were designed, when triggered, to render the refrigerators inoperable and unrepairable, requiring users to purchase new refrigerators that contained the same design and manufacturing defects as the originals, and which had the same propensity to cause fires.

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Another Norcold Warning –  Post of Plaintiff Jeffrey Etter 3/21/16:  The final arguments in the case regarding the pending certification of the class/objections to certification were made in early October of 2015 and a ruling was expected on November 12th, 2015. However NOT A WORD has been heard from the Judge in the last 4 months.

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Other Lawsuits:
(Different stories, same ripoff)

more lawsuits$7 Million Products Liability Settlement in Arkansas (2006) – An Arkansas woman whose husband died of smoke inhalation and burns in a camper fire resulting from a refrigerator defect settled her lawsuit against Norcold and a camper dealership for $7 million last week.  The cause of the fire was cracked tubing in the Norcold refrigerator, which resulted in the leaking of flammable hydrogen. Norcold apparently knew of the potential fire hazard as early as 1999…But the Plaintiff did not receive a recall notice until 6 years after Norcold knew of the defect.

Lots of comments from other folks who had fires looking to sue.

American Security Insurance v. Norcold, et al (Case No. 1:2010cv22778 filed 8/2/10 Florida Southern District Court) – I haven’t found petition or other info on this case yet, but as time allows, I’ll research this one more.

State Farm v. Norcold, et al (Court of Appeal of Louisiana No. 11-1355 decided 4/4/12) – On December 4, 2008, a motor home caught fire due to a defective refrigeration unit.  The fire destroyed the motor home and adjacent building, together with all contents therein, all of which were owned by Ronald and Dolores Semar. Therefore, the trial court rendered judgment awarding penalties and attorney fees in the amount of $531,214.00 and penalties and attorney fees in the amount of $518,786.00 in favor of State Farm against AHAC only.

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two-centsMalia’s Two Cents:  I know this is not the kind of fun stuff we started RVing for, but seriously – how can we know about this going on and do nothing about it?!  I intend to keep up with this and as I make sure I’m current with what’s happening, I want to start a letter writing campaign to manufacturers like Winnebago, Tiffin and as many others as I can find to ask why they keep installing these dangerous appliances in the products they sell.  I hope my friends will support this effort by commenting below with any information they have and once I compile the list of manufacturers to contact, I will compose a letter that you can use to participate in this protest.  It’s obvious Norcold and Dometic are not really going to do anything about this in response to the end users of their products because if we want propane powered refrigerators, we’re pretty much powerless if the manufacturers keep installing them without any demand that they be made safer.

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help me please

I seldom ask for help, but this is so important, not just to me, but to all RVers who have these ticking time bomb refrigerators in their rolling homes. I fulltimed for 15 years before I truly became aware of the nature and scope of these problems, even though I had another Norcold in an older motorhome that had at least three recall fixes done. It’s ridiculous, but it seems that the problems are getting worse and more serious, not better.  We need to stick together regarding this issue, so please comment on any (or all) of the related pages linked below.  Tell me your story, suggestions, etc.  I’ve gotten lots of emails and private messages, but since I intend to share these pages of research with the NHTSA, manufacturers and dealers to ask why more is not being done to protect consumers from these dangers, the more support shown on these pages, the better.  Please comment below and/or on other pages and spread the word!

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All Malia’s Miles Norcold pages:

Norcold RV RefrigeratorsRecalls not Working

NHTSA & Norcold Class Action Lawsuit  ♦ Amish Made Cooling Units

  • Sue

    NorCold — no NeverCold. Lived in our brand new Grand Design Reflection fifth wheel beginning in December. From the very beginning, it was not cold enough to store food. We live in Colorado and temperatures typically in winter are around 30 degrees. After fighting with Grand Design and NorCold finally got authorization to have a heater installed if I paid installation and they paid for part as the refrigerant froze due to cold temperatures. Their excuse — won’t function under 32 degrees. I live in Colorado! Even in the summer temperatures when camping can drop below 32 degrees at night. When the fix was done, the repair guy said that we would have the same problem in the summer when temperatures were high. Well, temperatures have ranged from 60 degrees to 100 degrees here. We have a thermometer in the refrigerator. It consistently runs above 40 degrees — too hot to safely refrigerate food. So, in our brand new fifth wheel, I am currently storing my food in a cooler. I know what their argument would be if I complained under warranty. It’s not our fault — Grand Design won’t admit that these refrigerators are not intended for the use they should be used for and NorCold will say that temperatures must be perfect — 35 degrees to 80 degrees for it to work properly. It is cloudy and 67 right now and the refrigerator temperature is 45 degrees. Maybe I should use it for our food and sue for food poisoning when I eat the food.

    • Wow, Sue, just when I thought I had heard it all, that is just ridiculous! I don’t know who’s handling it worse – Grand Design or Norcold. But it’s preposterous to me for Norcold to say that the temperature has to be within a perfect range to work properly. And 35 to 80 degrees is WAY too narrow a range anyway!

      It’s clear nothing will ever change in Norcold’s design or function if manufacturers like Grand Design and everybody else is still installing them and not holding them responsible!

      • Sue

        Agreed. Guess the only thing we can do is get the word out so some other unsuspecting victim doesn’t get ripped off. I just ordered a refrigerator that will fit on my counter under some cabinets (a dorm room type refrigerator) so I don’t have to keep relying on a cooler to keep my food safe. Grand Design is also at fault as they should have thought about where to install the refrigerator. Because it is in the slide out it is vented on the side instead of on the top which reduces air flow. If they’d installed it where I’m putting the small refrigerator it could have been vented out the roof. Buying a unit that was touted to be all weather (duo pane windows, heated underbelly, etc.) has sure proved to be a fallacy.

        • It’s ridiculous, but that’s not the first time I’ve heard units that were supposed to be better cold weather prepped were certainly not, at least not to any great extent. Certainly not enough to justify the tremendous extra cost they charge for that. Oh, and don’t get me started on the design features – or lack of them. Don’t they think about the people actually using these RVs? Apparently not in a lot of cases.

          • Sue

            And, in fact, they don’t want us to use our RVs on a more consistent basis. Then we’d find out all the design flaws even though we paid huge amounts of money for our rigs.

          • I think at this point they are so complacent because there is no real incentive for them to do better. There are more and more people buying them all the time. If we love the fulltime lifestyle, it’s not like we have a choice.

  • Mandy Jackson

    We have/had a 2012 Jayco Pinnacle that caught fire Tuesday Oct 17, 2017 while we were at work. We are basically full timers. The neighbor at the rv park said she heard an explosion looked out and our camper was on fire. We have had problems with the refrigerator on & off and talked to 2 different dealer’s service departments about it but they never mentioned a recall or an ongoing problem! Do you have any suggestions as to what our next steps should be? We had insurance and they have claimed the camper a total loss and will settle with us but claim is currently still in process.

    • Mandy, that’s so awful to hear that your RV actually caught fire! You didn’t say, but I assume your refrigerator was a Norcold?

      As far as recalls, there’s another page I did about those specifically:
      http://maliasmiles.com/norcold-refrigerator-recalls/

      But here is direct link to the Norcold Recalls site: http://www.thetford.com/customer-support/recall-information/. I would definitely start there and see what they tell you about whether yours has been included in recall or not. However, if you see what I’ve found, it sure takes them a while to include them.

      I hope you will also check out this other page I did about the NHTSA who supposedly is in charge of protecting the consumer in this matter. I’d say they’ve done a piss-poor job, but I wonder how many people actually file a complaint with them. There are links on that page on how to do so with forms, etc. http://maliasmiles.com/nhtsa-norcold-recalls/

      I would share all of this with your insurance company because I can’t believe they don’t have more experience with this same thing before.

      It seems they would also be investigating to determine what actually caused the fire – if it actually was the refrigerator or not.

      I hope you will report back and let us know what you find out. There are so many of us affected by this and we need to stick together and at least share information and resources.

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