Manitoba

Faulty block heater blamed for car fire a day after vehicle was in shop for repair, lawsuit alleges

A fire that burned a car beyond repair is being blamed on a defective block heater, and has led Manitoba Public Insurance to sue the automaker and the Winnipeg auto dealership involved.

MPI sues Toyota Canada, Winnipeg auto dealership, over block heater that was subject to safety recall

The block heater in a car that caught fire in Pinawa, Man., on Feb. 1, 2019 had been subject to a safety recall. (Submitted by Shawn Elcock)

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

A 2016 Lexus caught fire in February 2019 while it was parked outside a home 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 electrical power cords installed by dealers in some 2016 and 2017 Toyota and Lexus models might have been improperly manufactured. That could cause the wires to contact each other, resulting in a short circuit and fire, the recall notice said. 

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

Flames under the hood

"When we pulled up on scene, there was a vehicle at the end of the driveway and you could see clear flames coming from underneath the hood," Pinawa fire chief Shawn Elcock said.

"Firefighters knocked the fire down and opened up the hood. Within a matter of a couple of minutes we had the fire under control," Elcock said. 

The situation might have been more dangerous if the fire had happened in the middle of the night when people are asleep, rather than at 5:30 p.m., Elcock said, because the car had been parked close to the house.

"It might have extended to the house and it might have been a different story," he said.

MPI's lawsuit is seeking $41,040 in damages for the vehicle, which it describes as "damaged beyond reasonable repair" in the fire.

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

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

Car was in the shop day before fire

"The fire was caused by defects in the design, manufacture and assembly of the block heater by Toyota," MPI alleges in its statement of claim filed Jan. 20 in Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench. 

Toyota failed to adequately test the block heater and ensure it was free from defects, the claim alleges.

It also says Birchwood failed to exercise reasonable care and competence when installing the block heater. MPI alleges Toyota and Birchwood ought to have known the block heater was unsafe and posed a fire risk.

The day before the fire happened, the car had been in the shop at Birchwood to diagnose a check engine light, the claim alleges, "including, but not limited to, repairing and/or replacing the block heater."

The lawsuit alleges Birchwood "negligently" caused the fire by "failing to accurately diagnose and determine the cause of the check engine light," and "failing to repair and/or replace the block heater in accordance with the safety recall."

The certified technician who worked on the car that day is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges he "did not possess the necessary knowledge and skills" for the work.

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

MPI and the defendants Toyota Canada and Birchwood declined comment on the lawsuit while it's before the court.

In addition to the safety recall for this 2016 Lexus, there have been seven other recalls of block heaters for potential fire risk reported to Transport Canada by automobile companies since 2015. (Submitted by Shawn Elcock)

The Toyota/Lexus safety recall is not the only one that automobile companies have reported to Transport Canada in recent years for an issue with a block heater that could result in a fire.

Since 2015, Transport Canada has received seven other such block heater recalls. They include four from Ford, and one each by General Motors, Volkswagen, and Navistar. Collectively they covered 740,968 affected vehicles. 

Around the time the Pinawa fire happened, there could have been as many as 9,000 vehicles subject to the Toyota/Lexus recall that had still not had the block heater issue repaired, according to Transport Canada data for January 2019.

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 recallthat had been repaired had risen to 87 percent, which could have left as many as 5,000 vehicles still needing the block heater issue fixed, depending on how many were still on the road.

Under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, an automobile company is required to notify each current vehicle owner of a recall within 60 days after notifying Transport Canada. 

"In this case, Toyota Canada sent an interim notice to vehicle owners in September 2017 to advise them of this problem, but indicated that the parts to correct it were not available," Transport Canada said.  "They sent a second notice in January 2018 when the repair parts became available."

Transport Canada advises vehicle owners to register their vehicle with the manufacturer to receive any recall notices that might occur, and reminds people to make sure they notify the company of any change in mailing address.

That also applies when someone buys a used vehicle. 

Transport Canada says block heater fires can happen for a number of reasons, with a common cause being a poor connection to an extension cord.

"This can happen due to moisture contamination and/or corrosion of the terminals of the vehicle or extension cord," Transport Canada said, noting that a block heater should not be used inside a garage.

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