THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Fire starter: Incinerated Camry extinguishes beliefs

Colleen Miller has lived in the Charlottesville area less than two years, moving here in June 2007 from Norfolk. Among other things, she brought with her a 1992 Toyota Camry that, like many Toyotas on the roads these days, had more than 200,000 miles on it, but ran fine. 

In Spring 2008, Miller's car failed to pass inspection because a seatbelt warning light on the dash would not go off. 

On April 7, 2008, Brown Toyota repaired the problem at a cost of $756.42 using a procedure that, among other things, required it to disconnect the negative cable from the automobile's battery.

On April 17, Miller went to the market. When she returned home, she parked in her driveway and turned off the car. Several moments later, the engine burst into flames. A half hour later, once the fire department had doused the blaze, the Camry was ruined.

Thinking something that had occurred during the recent repair was behind the fire, Miller returned to Brown. The dealership denied blame, and hired Michael G. Pinion, a professional engineer and a Certified Fire & Explosion Investigator with the Richmond office of FORCON International, a national firm that provides "surety and fidelity consulting, forensic engineering and expert witness services." 

In his May 5 report, Pinion observed that the negative battery cable was intact after the fire, but the positive cable was "melted, burned and separated." He concluded that the fire started in the positive cable and that, in his opinion, the repair performed by Brown "was not associated with the damage at the Positive Battery Cable Terminal and did not cause the fire."

Noting that the fire occurred shortly after the car had been driven, Pinion concluded that "due to the age of the vehicle, the Positive Battery Terminal was likely damaged or in need of repair and overheated during the charging process as the vehicle was running."

But Pinion's report also states that the battery itself was replaced approximately one year earlier. Pinion's report does not explain why the vehicle's age leads to a conclusion that the terminal of a relatively new battery was "likely damaged."

Pinion said he wouldn't discuss the substance of his report without the written consent of his clients, but he told me he was hired jointly by Brown and Miller's fiancée, providing his report was "impartial." 

"I'm a professional," Pinion said, adding, "The facts are in my report."

Miller denies she or her fiancée hired Brown. 

Furthermore, Miller's fiancée told me that he showed a photograph of the burned engine to an engineer acquaintance of his who immediately noticed the bracket that holds the battery in place was askew and in contact with the positive battery cable, a situation that can cause a spark and ignite a fire. 

Miller's fiancée says Pinion agreed that was a possible cause, but said he was standing by his written opinion.

Miller thinks that bracket might have been loosened during the repairs performed a week prior to the fire. She says when she raised this issue with Brown, however, she was told to expect endless litigation from Brown's many lawyers if she pursued the claim. 

Instead, Brown offered to sell her another car with a "goodwill" discount.

Jay Malone, sales director at Brown, says it was his company alone that hired Pinion, but that Miller agreed thatBrown should hire an expert to review the case.

As for the threats of aggressive litigation to intimidate Miller, Malone doesn't specifically address what Miller may have been told, but in an email response to written questions, he states that Brown would not have pursued litigation in this case even if Miller had pursued her claim, suggesting such a threat would not have been made.

"If Ms. Miller had decided to pursue a claim through legal steps, then we would have simply turned it over to our insurance company," he wrote.

I have suggested to Miller that she consult with an attorney. This is a classic civil litigation issue with both facts and expert opinion at issue, and before Brown intimidates Miller, even unintentionally, with its size and legal resources, she ought to fully understand her legal rights and position.

Oh, and rather than litigate, Miller chose to take Brown up on its "goodwill" offer.

More on that next week. 

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