The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (2024)

A rural Victorian family is battling tech giant Samsung over a fridge they claim filled their house with a "really strong" chemical vapour that caused dizziness and confusion.

When Adele and Alex Rae smelled something awful in their house in late May, they immediately evacuated their two young children.

The couple from Paradise Beach in Gippsland say they quickly identified the source of the smell — their Samsung refrigerator, which was bought four years earlier from JB Hi-Fi.

"What we were smelling was really strong and filling up our house," Ms Rae said.

She said she had to hold her breath to empty the fridge of food, which the couple felt had to be thrown away.

Mr Rae said that all the while he was on the phone to Samsung, whose customer service agents kept telling him the fridge was out of warranty.

"They weren't giving me an appropriate answer when there was something seriously wrong," he said.

"It got to the point I was saying, 'your processes seem so broken, that someone can call up in this scenario and you can't even tell me if there's anything wrong'."

The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (1)

Mr Rae said he made more calls to Samsung, but the company wasn't able to tell him what the chemical was or whether it could be harmful.

He said that while he and his wife tried to air out the house, neither Samsung nor the poisons hotline was able to advise them as to whether the fridge smell indicated a potential health risk.

"I explained to the poisons hotline it wasn't just refrigerant, it was something more sinister," she said.

"We felt like we were being gaslighted that nothing was wrong, and the kids had been on the front lawn for four hours, with my youngest needing a nap."

It was then that Ms Rae said she began to feel dizzy.

She said she took a shower but collapsed, unable to stand, with her smart watch telling her her heart rate was 160bpm and rising.

"It was really alarming, my muscles started getting weak, I lost all strength in my muscles, I was on the floor of the shower," Ms Rae said.

"I was quite confused, I was panting and I couldn't get up.

"I went to use my legs and had no mobility."

They called triple-0 and paramedics attended, but couldn't enter the house. It had been marked by the authorities as hazardous.

There are moments of that day Ms Rae says she has no recollection of, including phone calls to family.

Mr Rae sourced a refrigeration mechanic familiar with Samsung fridges to inspect the appliance — with Mr Rae saying he had been told online by an anonymous person to take a panel off to find the problem.

When the panel was removed, an amber-coloured liquid was found on an internal fan, which the family was told was not normal.

The mechanic's report, seen by the ABC, suggests that both a refrigerant and oil leak were present, in addition to a circuit board fault.

Refund offered with 'gag clauses'

The Raes say that while the event left them shaken, the most important thing is to find out exactly what they inhaled, and whether it could cause them health problems in the future.

Samsung recently offered the family a payment of $974, the discounted price they paid for the fridge at JB Hi-Fi in Narre Warren four years earlier.

Samsung's own compliance tool, used by retailers to check that stock complies with Australian standards, lists the model as being one that should be prioritised for sale because it could be non-compliant.

In correspondence seen by the ABC, the family was told they wouldn't be given a deed of settlement and release to receive the payment until they had verbally accepted the offer.

They eventually received the document, which they believe was sent in error by a customer service agent.

But Mr Rae wouldn't sign.

He wanted an assurance that the machine would be checked over to establish what had happened and what his family had been exposed to.

But in the document, it detailed the offer and said there was no guarantee it would be investigated, and said the fridge would be taken away to the company's Sydney warehouse.

"I only wanted transparency, given our health implications, and needed to understand what might have happened, not a closed-door approach," Mr Rae said.

The document also had a non-disclosure condition stating that the Raes could not tell anyone in the media or on social media about what had happened.

In a statement provided to the ABC, published in full below, Samsung said it attempted to investigate the Raes' allegations, and offered them a full refund.

Samsung Electronics Australia is compliant with all applicable laws and regulations; and views Mr Rae's allegations with utmost severity having made multiple attempts with Mr Rae to investigate the matter, however Mr Rae has remained unwilling to provide us with access to the refrigerator to investigate or provide supporting evidence of the allegations made despite a full refund being offered.

The product in question complied with the A1 regulation when purchased in 2019; as the experience and safety of our retail partners and customers is critical, Samsung Electronics Australia developed a tool to identify non-compliant refrigerator stock to be returned for assessment following changes to the A2 regulation in June 2020, and since every product Samsung distributes meets or exceeds the required standards, ensuring the highest quality, safety and reliability for our customers.

Mr Rae disputes the claims by the company of "multiple attempts", and said he has only ever received one phone call from Samsung.

The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (2)

Erin Turner, chief executive officer of the Consumer Policy Research Centre, said she found the content of Samsung's deed of settlement and release sent to the Raes to be troubling.

"It's the deed of release that they sent to Alex that was really concerning and unfair," Ms Turner said.

"As a consumer advocate, it's rare to see deeds of release with gag clauses — which is what this is."

Ms Turner said it worried her that others would sign similar documents without knowing their full consumer rights.

"Alex has chosen to stand up against a really unfair practice," Ms Turner said.

"I thought it was a really unfair request from a very powerful company," she said.

"The deed gives Samsung all rights but they take no responsibility for what happened and no responsibility for what happens in the future — it's really one-sided."

The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (3)

Hunting for answers

Mick Owens has been a refrigeration mechanic in Gippsland for 35 years, and was registered to provide repairs for Samsung for five years.

He said the Rae family may have been exposed to refrigerant mixed with a synthetic oil or tracer, which might have leaked into the unit.

Mr Owens said he has been exposed to refrigerant on multiple occasions.

"A few times I've had bad leaks — it makes you light-headed, you can feel sick, disorientated, nauseous, confused," he said.

Mr Owens said that chemical combination normally stays confined, but if exposed to heat and components like insulation, it could cause a chemical reaction.

He said that in contrast to older refrigerators, newer models have pipes with thinner walls, making them more prone to leakages.

"The newer ones don't last as long and they're more likely to leak," he said.

The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (4)

The Rae family has now taken swabs from different parts of the fridge to have them tested in the hope of finding out what they might have been exposed to.

Melbourne University Pharmacology and Biochemistry Professor Gary Anderson told the ABC while it was hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the odour and vapour, he believed the stench was a result of a mechanical failure, coupled with a leak.

"The [refrigerant] doesn't have a strong odour or flavour so the fact they could smell it, taste it, suggests there's something else that's been released," Professor Anderson said.

"If the unit has broken down and it's leaked, there's been some sort of failure and the chance of things to mix over electrical circuits to heat, it could vapourise," he said.

"It's also a concern when the manufacturer is not forthcoming about these types of products and their safety."

On Tuesday, following questions from the media, Samsung removed the compliance checking tool that had been available publicly on its website.

The ABC contacted JB Hi-Fi, who declined to comment.

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The Raes say their fridge malfunctioned, triggering illness, and their refund offer included a 'gag clause' (2024)
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