Case of the Month: A Vehicle Exorcism?

Oct 1, 2013 by

In the spirit of Halloween, we bring you the following case.   Per our client, the insured parked her car and went in a grocery store.   When she came out, the car had moved and hit two other parked cars.   The insured said the car was demon possessed.  Our client assigned us to find out what really happened.

We inspected the vehicle at the insured’s residence. The vehicle sustained damages from a right rear side impact.   The right rear quarter panel and the right side of the rear bumper cover were damaged as a result of an impact.   The right rear window was broken and covered with plastic, but this damage was the result of a later incident and was not related to the date of loss incident.

We examined the interior of the vehicle.   The vehicle was energized with the insured’s ignition key.   The instrument cluster warning lights operated properly.   The brake warning light, ABS check light, and the parking brake “on” light operated properly and illuminated on the dash.   The carpeted driver’s floor mat was found in place and unremarkable.   The brake and throttle pedal mechanisms were examined and found to be intact and in good condition.   The brake system held the vehicle in place up to the torque converter stall speed of 2,200 revolutions per minute (RPM).  This indicated that the service brake system was operating properly.

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We examined and tested the transmission’s shifter linkage.   The transmission easily shifted from gear to gear without any binding, sticking, or grinding.  In order to shift gears and engage the transmission, the following steps were necessary.

To move the shifter from the Park position, 1) the ignition switch must be in the ‘ON’ position, 2) the brake pedal must be pressed, 3) the shifter button must be pushed and then 4) the shifter could then be pulled rearward to engage Reverse from Park.   The shifter and transmission could not be moved from the Park position if any of these steps were omitted.   The next position change was to pull the shifter rearward one click to engage Neutral.   The next position change was to pull the shifter rearward one more click to engage Drive.   The next 3 clicks each required the shifter button to be pressed and pulled rearward to engage Drive Three, Drive Two, and Drive One.

For the shifter to travel forward from Drive One, and move to the Park position, the following steps were required.   The shifter must be pushed forward one click to engage Drive Two.   Then the shifter must be pushed forward one click to engage Drive Three.  Then the shifter must be pushed forward one click to engage Drive.   Then the shifter must be pushed forward one click to engage Neutral.   From Neutral, the shifter button must be pushed at the same time as the shifter is pushed forward to engage Reverse.  From Reverse, the shifter button must be pushed at the same time as the shifter is pushed forward to engage Park.

As the shifter button must be pushed twice; once to engage Reverse and again to shift into Park, it was most likely that the insured moved the shifter from Drive into Neutral and then turned off the engine. When the transmission was shifted to Park, the car definitely would not roll.

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Complicating or contributing to the event was the poorly adjusted and worn parking brake system.   At the start of our inspection we noticed that the parking brake handle was set with two clicks of engagement.   The insured stated that she had set the parking brake when she parked the vehicle.   We found that the parking brake system was badly out of adjustment.   It appeared that this one year old, low mileage vehicle was driven with the parking brake partially engaged for some time; this explained the parking brake being so far out of adjustment.

The travel of the parking brake handle covered at least 14 clicks.   Upon testing, the parking brake required at least four clicks to keep the vehicle from rolling in Reverse with the engine at idle.   It required at least five clicks to keep the vehicle from rolling in Drive with the engine at idle.   The engine could overcome the parking brake and move the vehicle even with the handle pulled up 12 clicks.   This indicated that, under normal use, the parking brake was not functional.

We opened the hood and examined the engine and transmission.   The engine compartment components were found in place, intact, and appeared to be in good condition.   The automatic transmission fluid level was proper.

The underside of the vehicle was inspected.   No impact damages from road hazards nor vandalism were located on the transmission case.   No pre-existing damages, including stress cracks nor wear and tear issues were found on the outer surface of the transmission.   The transmission mounts were found in good condition and had no damages from impact, age, or environmental exposure.

The parking brake cables were found in good condition with no damage located.   The brake system, pads, rotors, calipers, drums, ABS sensors and cables, and all other components were in good safe operating condition.   The NHTSA website of vehicle recall issues that might be associated with this vehicle yielded none that were related to the date of loss incident.

So, was the car possessed?   No.   It was left in Neutral, not Park.   The parking brake, while engaged, was too worn to hold the car on the slight incline of the parking lot.   After the insured left the car in Neutral and set the non-functional parking brake, gravity took over.   The car rolled backwards into the cars parked behind it.   No tricks nor treats were witnessed in our inspection nor was an exorcism required.

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