Update in Sharper Image air-purifier class action

Consumer Reports News: January 31, 2008 03:09 AM

Last fall, a federal judge rejected the latest version of a proposed settlement to a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of millions of consumers who purchased The Sharper Image's Ionic Breeze air purifier after April 1999. Under the proposed settlement in Figueroa v. Sharper Image Corp., the company had agreed to provide plaintiffs store credit worth $19 for each air purifier they had bought—the machines cost up to several hundred dollars apiece—and to make available at the highly reduced price of $7 an “OzoneGuard” attachment to reduce ozone emissions in each purifier purchased.

Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga, a trial judge in the Federal District Court in Miami, ruled that the parties involved in the class action had not established that the settlement terms were “fair, adequate, or reasonable,” and that arguments referring to The Sharper Image’s “precarious” financial position did not make them so. (The Sharper Image reported a drop in sales for October. Meanwhile, there’s been a significant decline in of the value of the company stock.) The attorneys general from 34 states and the District of Columbia also opposed the settlement.

In her ruling, Judge Altonaga also cited the Senate Judiciary Committee, which before passing the Class Action Fairness Act in 2005 decried settlements in which plaintiffs receive promotional coupons or other nominal damages while the lawyers representing the members of the class action get substantial fees. In Figueroa v. Sharper Image Corp., attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs totaled $2 million.

Among objections to the settlement was one from a class member who had spent more than $500 on two Ionic Breeze purifiers but would have received only coupons worth $38. “The settlement is plagued by a cumbersome claims process that will make it extremely difficult for class members to even obtain the inadequate relief provided by this settlement,” read the 61-page denial of the settlement. (See Judge Altonaga’s decision here.)

In their suit against Sharper Image, plaintiffs had referred to past Consumer Reports tests of the Ionic Breeze that found, as we said in 2002, “almost no measurable reduction in airborne particles” and judged the model poor at removing dust and smoke from the air. (Consumer Reports’ policy does not permit the magazine to involve itself in litigation between other parties.)

Before the proposed settlement, many of the suits against The Sharper Image had been combined into a single nationwide complaint. Plaintiffs in one of the initial suits against the company had also claimed that the company "falsely advertised that the Ionic Breeze air purifier cleans and purifies the air," and that the Ionic Breeze is harmful because it emits ozone in excess of 50 parts per billion.

Following Judge Altonaga’s decision, The Sharper Image issued a statement expressing that it was “clearly disappointed” in the ruling.— Ed Perratore

Essential information:
If you suffer from asthma or allergies or have other concerns about the air quality in your home, you might own or be considering buying a room or whole-house air purifier. As we reported in the December 2007 article “ Filtering the claims,” there’s little definitive medical evidence that air purifiers help relieve respiratory symptoms, and some models might pose a threat even to healthy users.

Try these basic air-cleaning steps before you buy an air purifier. If you decide to purchase one, be sure to read our December 2007 report. You'll find buying advice and Ratings of room air cleaners. (Ratings of room and whole-house models are available to subscribers.) To see how those appliances clean the air in your home, read “ Purifier types,” plus our updated recommendations on electrostatic precipitators and our warnings about two ozone generators.                            

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