OPINION: Consumer has recourse if faulty items harm, damage
That’s not what one expects a new oil heater to do, but that’s what happened in August the second time Muriel Arendze of Melkbosstrand used her Mellerware Nevada 11 fin oil-heater.
Thankfully, no one was injured, although her dog narrowly escaped being hit by a spray of hot oil. But Arendze’s new rug and two couches were ruined. The heater, which she’d bought from online retailer Takealot just two weeks earlier, didn’t exactly explode, it spewed a jet of scalding hot oil from a small hole on the side of one of the fins.
Two other heaters of the same model did the same thing this winter, prompting the distributor, Creative Housewares, to block sales of the product, withdraw unsold stock – some 80 units – and have them thoroughly tested before reintroducing them for sale, confident that they were 100% safe, MD Aidan de Vos said.
Parow-based Creative Housewares has been distributing small appliances in South Africa for more than 30 years, with Mellerware as its core brand.
De Vos said 20 units of the problematic batch had been sold by various retailers at that point, of which three had ruptured, leaving 17 sitting in people’s homes – too few, he said, to warrant a national recall.
But until last week, when I began asking questions about the Arendze case, the company hadn’t made any attempt to contact any of those other 17 people, despite the fact that in Takealot’s case, at least, people who have bought specific products are very easy to trace.
Nineteen of the heaters in question had been sent to Takealot’s distribution centres, De Vos said – 12 to the one in Johannesburg and seven to the Cape Town one, and it was one of those seven which ending up causing havoc in Arendze’s lounge.
Interestingly, the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) makes a product’s entire supply chain jointly and severally liable for defective or dangerous products – manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
But the Act does give distributors and retailers an “out”, if “it is unreasonable to expect the distributor or retailer to have discovered the unsafe product characteristic, failure, defect or hazard, having regard to that person’s role in marketing the goods to consumers”.
Takealot’s Julie-Anne Walsh said the company had sold 91 Mellerware 11-fin heaters since in May this year, and had processed three returns due to leaking since August, including Arendze’s.
“Until now, we were not aware that there was a problem with this particular batch,” she said. “We know nothing about risky stock being withdrawn from trade for testing – only now has the company alerted us to a potential fault in this particular product.”
Complicating the issue is the fact that this year Takealot and other retailers sold two models of those 11-fin Mellerware heaters and only one of them is problematic.
The 35011 model, leftover stock from last winter, was not and is not a risk. It’s the newer 35011A model which proved to be prone to rupturing.
Walsh said Takealot had delisted the model in question “and until our investigations into the product’s quality have been resolved, it will remain delisted from our site”.
“And we will contact all customers who bought the affected products from us over the next days, offering them the opportunity to return the item to us and receive full credit.”
Arendze would not have chosen to share her heater rupture experience with me had it not been for the fact that while Creative Housewares was quick to refund her the cost of the heater – R765 – two months down the line the company’s insurer rejected her R25 000 claim for replacing her ruined rug and couches.
“I had backed up the claim with invoices for the items, as they were purchased brand new earlier this year, plus quotes and new invoices for repairs from the supplier,” Arendze said.
She also had photos of the oil spill in her lounge, taken immediately after the incident.
Arendze informed Creative Housewares of the rejection of the insurance claim, but had no response. And that’s when she sought my help.
The company has since paid the full R25000 cost of replacing her furniture. Whether or not a company has insurance to cover such product failures, and whether or not their insurer accepts or rejects the company’s claim, has no bearing on a consumer’s right, in terms of the CPA, to hold a company liable for damages or injury caused by a faulty product.
lAs a gesture of goodwill, Takealot offered Arendze a R500 credit on her account.
lIf you have a Mellerware Nevada 11 fin oil heater, model number 35011A, contact Creative Housewares on 021-931-8117.
If you are harmed by a defective product, you may be entitled to claim damages in respect of:
lCurrent and future medical expenses and future loss of earnings;
lPain and suffering; and
lLegal costs related to pursuing compensation for damages suffered. – Kirstie Haslam, a partner at DSC Attorneys of Cape Town, specialising in personal injury law.