Case of the Month: An Auto Engine Fire

Nov 1, 2016 by

The insured’s 2004 Mercedes-Benz C240 suffered an engine fire. GEI was assigned to determine the origin and cause, as well as to research all applicable recalls.

A search of recall notices found no open manufacturing recall issues that might have been related to the fire.

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Three Mercedes-Benz dealer service order/repair invoices were provided by the client for our examination.

The first was dated June 20, 2012. It reported that the engine was not running well,and service was performed on number 3 and number 6 cylinders. The second invoice was dated October 8, 2013. It too reported that the engine was not running well, with multiple misfires found. A third Mercedes-Benz dealer invoice was dated December 8, 2015. It also found that the engine was not running well. Several problems were found, including the need to replace the catalytic converters. The customer refused all services. The fire occurred roughly six months later.

The physical inspection of the vehicle showed damages from a limited fire.

The exterior of the vehicle was examined. Fire damage was found to the left front fender and the left front tire.

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The interior of the vehicle and the remaining body panels and tires were not affected by the fire and were found in good condition.

The hood was opened, and the fire area examined. The left side motor mount, wiring for the ABS control module, left front brake fluid hose, left headlight, and minor plastic components in the left front of the engine compartment and left front wheel well were damaged by the fire.

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The point-of-origin of the fire was located in front of the left side catalytic converter. The catalytic converter had been failing for a significant period of time as indicated by the long-term wear-and-tear issues documented by the service records. Catalytic converters of this age with this many miles on them can get clogged up and generate sufficient heat to cause the converter(s) to glow red-hot.

The power steering fluid reservoir was found profoundly overfilled to the point where the overflow of fluid was leaking from the reservoir. The power steering fluid spread downwards and along the left side of the engine.

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The cause of the fire was the failing catalytic converter that reached a high enough operating temperature to ignite the power steering fluid leaking from the overfilled power steering fluid reservoir.

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The Mercedes-Benz dealer had determined that the catalytic converters were worn out and required replacement well prior to the date-of-loss fire as documented on the service invoices. The customer declined the recommended repairs. The continued operation of the vehicle with the poor condition of the catalytic converters allowed the conditions to develop that ignited the overflowing power steering fluid.

Customers who decline recommended repairs and defer needed maintenance frequently discover their thrift to be ill advised, as preventable larger (and more expensive) failures later inevitably occur. Even a Mercedes-Benz will wear out. In this case, replacement of the clogged catalytic converters would have prevented the fire.

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