The Trial Lawyer Summer 2018 - Page 41

This article will discuss the CPSC investigation , examine the nature and scope of the defect , and conclude by addressing the reasons why Polaris fire injuries , deaths , and lawsuits may continue into the foreseeable future .
The CPSC Investigation And Penalty
The CPSC charged that Polaris knew from the mounting complaints , which began as early as 2013 , that the Ranger 900 and the RZR 900 and 1000 , all four-wheeled , multi-seat gasolinepowered utility vehicles , could catch fire while underway . But , the commission said the Medina , Minnesota-based company had unreasonably delayed reporting “ a substantial product hazard .”
In total , the settlement agreement tallied 196 fire reports that Polaris had fielded , including one death and 21 injuries , ranging from first- to thirddegree burns . The settlement also recounted a series of recalls Polaris initiated in February 2016 to make the Ranger and RZR Recreational Off-Road Vehicles ( ROV ) less combustible , along with a variety of root cause explanations and fixes .
Polaris agreed to pay the April fine , but denied any wrongdoing . According to the settlement agreement , its signature did not “ constitute an admission ” to the CPSC ’ s charges that the recalled vehicles “ contained a defect that could create a substantial product hazard ” or “ create an unreasonable risk of injury ,” or that its notice to the agency was untimely . The recalls were simply launched “ out of an abundance of caution and without Polaris having determined or concluded that the RZR Vehicles or Ranger Vehicles contained a defect or posed an unreasonable risk of serious injury .”
The Defect — Why Are Polaris Vehicles Catching On Fire ?
Despite several recalls and a rotating list of root causes , there is good reason to believe that Polaris fires will continue to happen into the foreseeable future . Indeed , the CPSC and Polaris issued a joint statement in December which suggests that Polaris ’ prior recalls failed to identify all root causes and provide all needed repairs , noting that :
… users of the vehicles that were repaired as part of the April 2016 recall continue to report fires , including total loss fires . The 2017 RZRs were not included in the April 2016 recall , but these models have also experienced fires .
The joint statement suggests that the problem may be much larger than the official record suggests , and may affect more models than those covered by the repair campaigns . And that ’ s exactly what ’ s alleged in a recently filed class action lawsuit , Bruner v . Polaris . Specifically , the Bruner plaintiffs allege the true cause of the fires is a common design defect : a high-powered engine directly behind the occupant compartment with an exhaust system that is confined to a tight space without adequate airflow .
If this theory is correct , then the fires might be tied together with a common cause dating back to 2011 , when Polaris introduced an engine — the ProStar — which is intended to make the RZR accelerate more quickly and achieve greater speeds . Polaris positioned the ProStar in a new location at the center of the vehicle and directly behind the occupants . This placement put the engine in tight quarters , under a plastic bed . The new configuration also changed the exhaust pipe location so that it comes out of the engine toward the passengers , before turning a tight 180 degrees toward the rear . Bruner alleges that this new configuration gives the super-hot exhaust nowhere to go , overheating the compartment , melting the plastic engine cover , and igniting the engine or nearby components and debris that might get caught in the undercarriage .
Polaris Expands Use Of Prostar Across Product Lines Even After Issuing Bulletins And Recalls
In the four years following the ProStar ’ s 2011 introduction , Polaris rapidly expanded the use of the new engine across it lineup of vehicles . By 2015 , all RZR and all gas powered 500cc or larger Ranger models reportedly used the ProStar . This rapid expansion occurred despite the company issuing multiple service bulletins and recalls involving fire risks posed by the engines .
In 2013 , Polaris issued a Technical Service Bulletin related to “ hot air leakage ” in the 2011 XP 900 that could cause the firewall behind the occupant seats to overheat and melt . That same year , Polaris launched the first of many recalls for various Ranger and RZR models . In doing so , Polaris offered a variety of root-cause explanations , including :
• melting fire walls ,
• inadequate heat shields ,
• exhaust silencer cracks ,
• improperly secured fuel lines ,
• leaky turbocharger oil drains ,
• overheating engines , and
• fuel tank vent lines with insufficient clearance to the exhaust head pipe and misrouted fuel vent lines .
Why would Polaris continue to not only use the ProStar , but expand its application into new models following early signs of problems with the engines ? The answer may lie in the company ’ s finances . Notably , Polaris chose to forego a supplier-designed engine and instead design this engine in-house — suggesting that the company may be heavily invested in this technology . And , around the same time it developed and introduced this engine , the company was also allegedly on a mission to operate as a “ lean enterprise ,” with a focus on improving , among other things , its costs and margins .
During that timeframe , the company ’ s annual reports and
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