Sun-Sentinel.com: Attorneys contest gas-gauge Shell 'restrictions'
By Michael Turnbell
Posted June 4 2004
Attorneys sought a court order Thursday asking a federal judge to stop Shell Oil Co. from requiring consumers to sign away their rights when filing claims to fix fuel gauges damaged by tainted gasoline.
Fort Lauderdale lawyer David Scott said Shell imposed "burdensome restrictions" on consumers by requiring them to sign releases and have their vehicles "undergo limited automotive inspections" in order to be reimbursed.
By agreeing to the settlement to fix a bad fuel gauge, Scott said consumers could be forced to pay for other vehicle problems that might not show up until weeks or months later.
One driver who called Scott's law office said the high sulfur content in the gas ruined his catalytic converter in addition to his fuel gauge, with a repair tab of more than $1,000.
Scott said some dealerships have told drivers that warranties on new vehicles don't cover fuel gauge repairs. They've also told drivers that new car warranties will be voided if they take their car to another shop to get it fixed.
Shell spokesman Shaun Frederick said Shell has a draft "release form" for customers to sign when filing claims but has not required anyone to sign anything yet.
Frederick said Shell also is exploring ways for customers to have their vehicles repaired without having to pay the cost upfront, but a formal process isn't in place yet.
"We are deeply sorry that customers are impacted by the situation," Frederick said. "We take this matter very seriously and encourage customers who have experienced fuel gauge-related issues to contact our customer service center for assistance."
Michelle Tuggle of Fort Lauderdale filed two claims after fuel gauges in her Volkswagen Passat and Mercedes vehicles malfunctioned last week. Shell's insurance company sent her a letter Thursday, which asked her to obtain two estimates for each car.
"Upon receipt we will review for consideration and, if needed, we may elect to have your vehicle inspected," the letter stated.
Tuggle said the letter infuriated her because it wasn't signed, and the toll-free number listed at the bottom isn't a working number.
"I've been a loyal Shell customer almost exclusively for 20 years, and this is what I get?" Tuggle said. "They're telling me I have to get four estimates. Who's going to pay for my time? And after their review, maybe they'll elect to cover my claim?"
On Tuesday, Scott filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale accusing Shell and three subsidiaries of violating state law by engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices. Motiva Enterprises LLC, Saudi Refining Inc. and Equilon Enterprises LLC also are named in the suit.
The suit, which seeks class action status, says the companies "knew or reasonably should have known" that gasoline with high levels of sulfur would damage vehicles but continued to sell the fuel to motorists. Cynthia Chowdhury and Marilyn Fisher, both of Fort Lauderdale, are listed as plaintiffs.
The suit seeks a court order to force the companies to inspect affected vehicles for up to a year and cover the cost of any repairs upfront.
Shell officials reiterated Thursday that the sulfur-tainted fuel isn't known to cause engine damage, but it can corrode the silver components in fuel gauges. Fixing the gauges can cost from $300 to $600 or more, depending on the vehicle's make and model.
But in the request for the court order against Shell, attorneys said the Environmental Protection Agency determined in 1998 that "sulfur poisoning" in vehicle engines can't be reversed.
"Instead, certain engine components must be taken off-line, at great expense, in order to achieve sulfur poisoning reversal," the request states.
Charles Bronson, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said affected drivers should choose reputable repair shops to have their vehicles repaired.
"Consumers want to make sure that they are dealing with a registered and reputable facility," Bronson said. "They don't want to compound the problem by being the victim of a shoddy repair job."
Michael Turnbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4155 or 561-243-6550.