Defective block heater blamed for automotive hearth a day after car was in store for restore, lawsuit alleges

A fire that burned a car beyond repair is blamed on a defective block heater, and Manitoba Public Insurance is now suing the automaker and the affected Winnipeg dealership.

A 2016 Lexus caught fire in February 2019 when it was parked outside a house in Pinawa, Man., With its block heater plugged into a power source.

The car was subject to a Transport Canada safety recall that said the power cords installed by dealers in some 2016 and 2017 Toyota and Lexus models may not have been properly manufactured. Doing so could cause the wires to touch, which could result in a short circuit and fire, the recall notification said.

MPI insured the vehicle and is now suing Toyota Canada Inc. – which owns the Lexus brand – and the Winnipeg dealership that sold the car, Birchwood Lexus Toyota, owned by WLT Holdings Ltd. operated out of Winnipeg.

Flames under the hood

“When we stopped on site, there was a vehicle at the end of the driveway and clear flames could be seen under the hood,” said Pinawa fire chief Shawn Elcock.

“Firefighters put the fire down and opened the hood. We had the fire under control in a matter of minutes,” said Elcock.

The situation could have been more dangerous if the fire had happened in the middle of the night when people were sleeping, and not at 5:30 p.m., Elcock said because the car was parked near the house.

“It could have spread to the house and it could have been a different story,” he said.

MPI’s lawsuit provides for $ 41,040 in damages for the vehicle labeled “irreparably damaged” in the event of a fire.

Birchwood bought the car from a Kelowna, BC dealer in June 2016 and then installed a block heater in it, the court document says. A few days later, a customer bought it from a Birchwood dealer in Winnipeg.

Transport Canada issued a safety recall in July 2017, the year after the vehicle was sold. Then the fire happened on February 1, 2019.

The car was in the store the day before the fire

“The fire was caused by deficiencies in the design, manufacture and assembly of the block heater by Toyota,” said MPI in its statement of claim filed January 20 in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench.

Toyota failed to adequately test the block heater and make sure it was free from defects.

It is also said that Birchwood did not exercise adequate care and skill in installing the block heating. MPI claims Toyota and Birchwood should have known the block heater was unsafe and posed a fire risk.

The day before the fire, the car had been to the Birchwood store for an engine light check. The claim claims “including, but not limited to, the repair and / or replacement of the block heater”.

The lawsuit alleges that Birchwood “negligently” caused the fire by “not properly diagnosing and determining the cause of the engine test lamp” and “not repairing and / or replacing the block heater in accordance with the safety recall.”

The certified technician who was working on the car that day is also named in the lawsuit as a defendant who claims he “did not have the knowledge and skills” to do the job.

The lawsuit seeks to hold Birchwood liable for the negligence and negligence of the technician, who is not named in the court document but is identified as John Doe.

MPI and Defendants Toyota Canada and Birchwood declined to comment on the lawsuit while it was on trial.

In addition to the 2016 safety recall for this Lexus, seven other block heater recalls have been reported to Transport Canada by automotive companies since 2015 due to potential fire hazards. (Submitted by Shawn Elcock)

The Toyota / Lexus safety recall isn’t the only one auto company Transport Canada has reported in recent years about a problem with a block heater that could result in a fire.

Since 2015, Transport Canada has received seven additional company recalls about block heater issues that could lead to a fire. These include four from Ford and one each from General Motors, Volkswagen and Navistar. In total, they covered 740,968 affected vehicles.

Around the time the fire happened in Pinawa, there were up to 9,000 vehicles subject to the Toyota / Lexus recall in January 2019, according to Transport Canada, where the block heater problem had still not been resolved .

Companies that have recalls are required to provide Transport Canada with quarterly reports on the completion rate of repairs for two years after a recall.

By July 2019, the percentage of vehicles from the 2017 Toyota / Lexus block heater recall that had been repaired had risen to 87 percent, which could result in up to 5,000 vehicles still having the block heater problem fixed had to, depending on how many were still on the street.

Under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, an automotive company must notify any current vehicle owner of a recall within 60 days of notifying Transport Canada.

“In this case, Toyota Canada sent a preliminary notice to vehicle owners in September 2017 to inform them of the issue, but it was advised that the parts to fix the problem were not available,” said Transport Canada. “You sent a second notice in January 2018 when the replacement parts became available.”

Transport Canada encourages vehicle owners to register their vehicle with the manufacturer in order to receive any recall notifications and reminds employees to notify the company of any postal address changes.

This also applies when someone buys a used vehicle.

According to Transport Canada, block heater fires can occur for a number of reasons. A common cause is a poor connection to an extension cord.

“This can happen due to moisture contamination and / or corrosion of the vehicle’s connectors or extension cord,” said Transport Canada, noting that a block heater should not be used in a garage.