A class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Michigan claims that certain models of GE microwave ovens are prone to burst into flames without warning.

The suit alleges that the defect lies in the control panel and magnetron, which generates the actual micro waves within the oven. The suit claims that GE should have known these microwave ovens were defective since at least 2003. Although the suit doesn't give the exact model numbers of affected microwaves, 20 models in the Spacemaker or Over-the-Range lines are implicated.

At least three fires one in Michigan and two in Ohio have been reported as a result of the faulty microwaves. One of the Ohio incidents showed how unpredictable these fires can be. Ann Mau's microwave wasn't even turned on, yet it burst into flames and sent smoke billowing into the hallway. Mau was lucky she was home; as she told a local television affiliate, The firefighter told us five more minutes [and] we would have lost our whole first floor.

In a letter mailed to Cincinnati's local ABC affiliate, GE claimed that, these types of random failures are rare and do not indicate a systemic problem. It also refused to admit that the fire in Mau's house was due to a malfunction, claiming that we are also looking at other information.

GE claims that it only received 13 reports of fire or smoke last year, out of over 12 million microwaves in use. However, ConsumerAffairs.com has received at least 18 complaints regarding GE microwave fires in the past year.

Connie of Chelsea, OK writes that, The whole right inside [of my microwave] made a loud pop and caught on fire while making popcorn. Called GE and explained the situation and they were going to be more than happy to fix it but it would cost me a trip charge plus parts. I explained I was only out of warranty by 6 months. She said she was sorry but could do nothing.

Ethel of Virginia Beach, VA recalls a similar frightening experience: We smelled burning wires, turned off the circuit breaker to the house and called 911. Three fire trucks arrived to look for the cause. As it turned out the microwave was the cause.

Like Mau, some consumers experienced a fire when their microwave was sitting idle. This was the experience of Ronald of Saline, MI: The GE microwave caught on fire while NOT in use ... Smoke damage, scorched cabinets. Microwave destroyed.

The lead plaintiff in the Michigan action, Tim Hennigan, owned a GE microwave which he purchased in February 2001. In June 2008, the microwave turned itself on, and immediately began sparking and emitting smoke. The control panel failed and could not be used to turn the microwave off; Hennigan finally managed to stop the fire by shutting off power to the kitchen. As a result, the suit claims, Mr. Hennigan suffered smoke-related damage and he incurred additional replacement costs for his microwave.

Consumers who buy new houses should be especially careful, as the Spacemaker microwaves often come pre-installed over the oven. As Marney of Springdale, AR, writes, We bought this house in October and the kitchen comes with a full line of cheap GE appliances.

The suit also names as a defendant Samsung, which designed and manufactured key parts of the microwaves.

The action defines a class of all individuals who have owned a GE-brand microwave since January 2000, and alleges counts in negligence, strict liability, unjust enrichment, failure to warn, Michigan consumer laws, and breach of express and implied warranties.

The suit is being prosecuted by Hassan Zavareei of Tycko & Zavareei in Washington, D.C.

This is not the first suit alleging defects in GE microwave ovens. A suit filed by Horwitz, Horwitz & Paradis of New York claims that in certain models, the magnetron simply fails after a period of time, rendering the ovens useless.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has asked anyone with complaints to file them at www.cpsc.gov.