Burying Your Head in the Sand Will Get You Nowhere

SFE Attorney: Cliff Wilson

Plaintiff Attorney: Justin Steffen

City, Co., State: Wasco County Circuit Court, Oregon

Claims Alleged: Property Damage

Injuries Alleged: Replacement of Engine in Truck

Admitted Liability: No

Amount Claimed: $18,028.31

The Overview

It’s one of the downsides of driving; at some point even the best drivers will experience car trouble.  It may come in the form of a flat tire, perhaps you spout an oil leak, or maybe your car overheats. The important question is: when your car does experience a mechanical difficulty how do you respond?  In one of Cliff Wilson’s recent arbitrations, he showed the plaintiffs that you can’t just stick your head in the sand, blatantly ignore the signs of a vehicle’s mechanical distress, and then avoid taking responsibility when the automobile finally has a complete engine meltdown.

The Background

The plaintiffs in this case owned a ford F350 diesel truck.  Originally from Canada, they had been traveling across the United States on a road trip for nearly seven months attending various dog and horse events.  Behind their truck they towed a full living trailer, a horse trailer, four horses, and five dogs, so they were hauling a heavy load.  While in Oregon, the plaintiffs began to experience trouble with their truck, and noticed oil in the coolant.  The tow truck driver who responded to their call for help informed the plaintiffs that there was a ford repair shop close by, but upon hearing that this shop had a two-week backlog, they opted to have the truck towed to the defendant’s repair facility.

The truck arrived at the defendant’s repair shop, and the shop’s mechanics began attempting to diagnose the problem.  Some repairs were performed by the mechanical team.  However, the mechanics did not feel that they were allowed enough time by the plaintiffs to repair all of the issues with the truck, or to determine the cause for the engine cross contamination.  The defendant mechanics were unable to duplicate the serious issue of engine cross contamination in the shop, and communicated this to the plaintiffs.  When the mechanics requested an additional two days for further diagnosis and repairs, they were denied.  The plaintiffs picked up the truck from the shop and defendants advised them that the truck was not in good shape.  The plaintiffs were informed that they should have the truck looked at immediately (Defendants recommended the Ford repair shop in town), or leave the vehicle for further repairs.  The plaintiffs demanded to leave immediately with the truck.  The defendants advised the plaintiffs that the truck could be driven, but could not haul any load, and could only be driven until the condition of the truck worsened.

The plaintiffs chose to drive to Prosser, Washington (which was two hours away).  During the drive, the truck’s check engine light was constantly illuminated.  About 22 miles from Prosser, the truck over heated.  The plaintiffs pulled over, let the engine cool, added oil to the engine and water to the coolant reservoir.  Then they got back in the truck and continued to drive toward Prosser.  At about 10 miles from Prosser the truck again overheated – this time spewing sludge out of the engine.  The plaintiffs pulled over, let the engine cool, and then continued to drive the vehicle despite the fact that it was in obvious distress.  They barely managed to get the truck to crawl into the ford dealership in Prosser.  Upon arrival the mechanics at the ford dealership informed the plaintiffs that the engine had to be replaced.  Damage to the engine was so extensive from the overheating that pieces of the engine had literally melted.

Plaintiffs’ Theme

Plaintiffs attempted to shift the blame on to defendants, claiming they explicitly instructed the staff to perform all necessary repairs on the truck to fix the problem with the oil cooler on the truck. They insisted the staff at defendant’s repair shop was informed that the oil cooler had failed, yet they did not replace it during the repair. After noticing the engine light was still on after repairs had been made, plaintiffs contended they were duped into thinking the light was on simply because the gas tank was putting pressure on the gas level gauge.

Plaintiffs’ main focus was the fact that a staff member at defendant’s repair shop allegedly told them the truck was safe to drive, despite plaintiffs having brought it back into the shop three times. Plaintiffs claim they relied on this safety assertion in making the decision to drive to Prosser, where they then experienced catastrophic engine failure, resulting in replacement of the entire engine. They alleged defendants were negligent for failing to make the necessary repairs to the truck.  

Our Strategy

The major question in this case was which parties’ actions were the substantial contributing factor that caused the engine to fail spectacularly.  Was the damage due to the fact that the defendants told the plaintiffs they could drive the truck until the condition worsened?  Or was the damage caused by the plaintiffs, who ignored the obvious warning signs and continued to drive the truck not only when the condition of the engine worsened, but after?

Cliff argued that his clients were not negligent, and that the plaintiffs had no evidence of negligent behavior.  The case focused on showing that the plaintiffs were the ones who behaved in an unreasonable and negligent manner. 

Cliff pointed out that the law in Oregon requires that a person who has suffered damage has a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid increasing that damage.  There can be no recovery for increased damage that is caused by the failure to exercise such care.  The plaintiffs’ truck suffered damage prior to it arriving at the defendant’s repair shop.  By taking the truck to the defendant’s facility the plaintiffs showed that they were attempting to avoid further damage to the engine.  However, when the plaintiffs decided to deny the mechanics some extra time to fully diagnose and repair the damage, they took matters into their own hands.  The plaintiffs willfully chose to ignore the advice and recommendations of the mechanics.  They also opted not to have further repairs completed at a nearby Ford repair shop.  Finally, against all reason, they felt it was best to drive an overheated truck, not once, but twice instead of calling a tow truck.  Those actions were negligent on the part of the plaintiffs, and ultimately what caused the truck’s engine to suffer a meltdown.

The Outcome

The plaintiffs were seeking damages in the amount of $18,000 to cover the defendant’s repair bill, and the cost to replace the truck engine. However, the arbitrator agreed with Cliff’s assessment of the law and found in favor of the defense.  This outcome shows that plaintiffs do not get to just ignore problems and bury their heads in the sand.  Instead, they have a duty to try to halt further damage and act with common sense.

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