About four years ago, Mary Kaden had noticed what she thought was just wear and tear on five casement windows in her Minneapolis home.

But when Kaden opened one of the windows this summer and a rotted chunk of sash tumbled to the ground, she began to suspect the windows were defective.

She contacted Pella Corporation, the Iowa company that manufactured her ProLine windows, and asked for a free replacement for the worst-off one. Pella said no, telling her the 10-year warranty on the window had expired. The windows were 13 years old.

"I got a lot of push back," Kaden said.

What Pella didn't tell her was that her situation was not unique. A 2006 class-action federal lawsuit in Illinois, Saltzman et. al. vs. Pella Corporation, was initiated by a group of customers who claimed certain Pella windows "contain a latent defect that allows water to penetrate and leak behind the aluminum cladding, resulting in premature wood rot."

The suit reached a tentative settlement in June that will provide compensation to customers even if their warranty has expired. The settlement is awaiting court approval.

As with many defective products, however, it's up to consumers to do their homework to find out that they're not alone in their fight with a manufacturer. Kaden's husband first learned of the lawsuit when he searched online for replacement windows.

Now Kaden says she feels vindicated.

Pella agreed to the settlement in order to avoid the "expense and disruption of continued litigation" but denied any wrongdoing. "Pella believes the allegations made in the Saltzman complaint about product defect are without merit," said Kathy Krafka Harkema, spokesperson for Pella Corporation.

The settlement may affect up to 5 million windows, according to Paul Weiss, a Chicago attorney for the class, including all Pella ProLine casement, transom and awning windows manufactured between 1991 and 2003.

"It is unknown how many of those may need repair or replacement, but we believe the number to be small," Krafka Harkema said.

During her conversations with Pella customer service agents, however, Kaden was given the impression that any problems with the windows were her fault.

"One rep goes: I would never buy a wood window."

"Another rep said: Well you know there's lot of maintenance involved in these and I said like what? Well you go on our website and read them. I said to my husband, obviously we missed something with the maintenance. Can you figure out what we missed?"

"I have felt like the worst homeowner. Like I did something wrong," Kaden said.

Plaintiffs named in the lawsuit described similar responses from customer service.

Dr. Leonard Saltzman of Illinois said Pella refused to do anything about his $20,000 worth of out-of-warranty windows and attributed the damage to faulty installation.

Pella refused to replace Iowan Ken Eubank's windows but did come out and put silicon caulk around the rotting windows, for a charge.

Lubo and Maria Hadjipetkov of New Jersey were told their problems were a result of improper installation and maintenance.

During her discussions with Pella, Kaden was offered a 30 percent discount on replacement of the worst window, labor excluded.

"The people we talked to who were out of warranty, they were getting nothing," Weiss said.

Under the settlement, if approved, Kaden will be able to get 35 percent off on replacement of all five windows, up to a $750 total payout. Pella says that's already the company's practice. Alternately, Kaden and other affected homeowners may choose to enter into binding arbitration, which has a maximum payout of $6,000.

Weiss suggests homeowners in Kaden's situation contact Pella to help ensure they get notice of the claims process. In addition, homeowners need to contact Pella before any settlement notice is published or sent to them if they want to have the option of participating in arbitration.

A hearing on the settlement is scheduled for Oct. 15. If approved, notice will be placed in newspapers and other publications and homeowners will be notified directly, Weiss said. Information is also available at www.windowsettlement.com.