flames, but gets no sympathy from Volvo
By Anne Stanton
On the warm fall evening of September 21, James Weston Lynne and
Jamaica Lynne Weston were driving on East Silver Lake Road to a
meeting in their 1996 850 Volvo wagon.
I was driving and Jamaica looked over, and saw thick brown smoke
coming up between my legs. Within the next 10 seconds, we pulled over
to the side of the road, and we jumped out of the car, James said.
The couple leaped out of the car and watched as the flames engulfed
the seats and began shooting out of the open sunroof like a fiery
volcano. James, who had grabbed his cell phone, started taking photos
and video of the fiery spectacle.
To their amazement, the empty and burning car began driving backward
up a hill like a beheaded chicken. James thinks the fire tripped the
starter wiring, causing the starter motor to electrically power the
car. He knew he didnt leave it running because the key was in his
pocket. Within about 15 minutes the car was a burned out metal hulk.
It was just sort of unbelievable. All we could say was it was a scene
out of a movie. How surreal and ironic that we are aspiring filmmakers
and this terrible movie was taking place in front of us. We were
awestruck in disbelief because it was so bizarre, James said.
Theres a good chance the wire on the seat heaters shorted out and
started the fire since Volvo issued a recall for that model and year
in 2003, James said.
But a company spokesman, Don Johnston, said Volvo will not give the
couple any money to replace the car, worth about $2,500. The companys
responsibility ended with the recall that was launched in January of
They were the fifth owner of the car and they should have done some
research to see if the car had any recalls. Im not sure where our
responsibility ends when we do everything the way were supposed to
do, said Johnston, adding that the company doesnt reimburse any car
owner that has failed to get a recall done.
Johnston said the couple was at fault for failing to check with the
dealer or the National Highway Safety Administration to see if there
had been recalls issued on their model and year. Additionally, Carfax
showed there were four prior owners and the car had been in three
accidents before the fire. Johnston said the couple had never taken
the car to a Volvo dealer which could have alerted them about the
A car, being a very complicated piece of machinery, is not a casual
purchase. Especially today with all the Internet has to offer, its
not hard to find information about products, he explained.
Johnston also said there is no conclusive proof that the heated seats
caused the fire, pointing to other items found by an
inspectorclothes, a water bottle, a glass jar, books, magazines, and
an electronic device in the back seat. With more than 216,000 miles
on the car, there might have been something stuck under the front seat
that spontaneously burst into flames, Johnston said. The inspector
cited nothing under the seat in his report.
The couple wishes that Volvo had made more of an effort to get the
word out. The company only did one mailing on the recall in December
of 2003, according to Johnston.
For them to blame us seems really harsh. We didnt do anything to
cause this, said Jamaica.
James said he had always believed that Volvo stood for safety and for
customer satisfaction. He now thinks it should take responsibility for
its faulty product and compensate them $2,500 for the car. They hired
an attorney to write Volvo a letter to plead their case.
James said that they did take the car twice to Traverse Motors, a
Volvo dealer, for an unscheduled oil change, but did not hear of the
recall. Perhaps Volvo dealers should routinely tell Volvo owners of
recalls, even if the car is in only for an oil change, he suggested.
Although its true the car had been in previous accidents, they were
minor. And there was nothing under the seat, and certainly nothing
flammable. They didnt use the seat heaters because they never worked.
We love seat warmers and wished they did work.
The couple didnt have collision insurance on the car; even if they
had, its doubtful whether an insurance company would replace it
because the recall defect had not been fixed, said Joe Sarafa, a
Traverse City attorney.
If there is a recall that wasnt performed, and its the cause of an
accident, many insurance companies will deny the claim. The reality is
they want you to sue the manufacturer and leave them out of it,
To make matters worse, the couple didnt realize the tow company would
charge them for storing their wrecked vehicle. By the time they went
to retrieve it after a week, the tow company said they owed $500 for
storage and the clerk was rude. The bill was marked down when the
couple signed over the car, Jamaica said.
The couple, which owns a fledgling film production company, lacks the
money to replace the car and is now getting around Traverse City on a
rusty tandem bicycle. They philosophically like the idea of biking
because its good for them and the environment, but they had the
option of a car when towing film equipment.
Sue Ferrick of Pennsylvania triggered the Volvo 850 recall after
Action News did a report of her 1997 wagon going up in flames in
December of 2002. According to comments on an Internet website, she
barely made it out of the car alive.
Ferrick said she signed an agreement to not speak to the media after
she accepted a replacement car from Volvo. Before that point, Ferrick
was very outspoken in an Action News report, which pressured Volvo to
issue a recall.
That recall of 1996 and 1997 models has likely saved cars and lives,
but it didnt help John Simkiss, also of Pennsylvania. He had a 1994
Volvo 850, which burned up the same month and year as Ferricks carin
December of 2002. He had started the car to warm it up in the
driveway, and then returned inside the house to get something.
On the way out, I ran into my wife who had just come home. The horn
went off in our car. We went outside to see what was going on, and saw
the car was on fire. I had left it running, wipers, defrost, front and
back on. I turned the corner, and the car was engulfed in flames. It
was the most shocking thing I saw in my life, he said.
It went from being a car to being an inferno in just a few minutes.
In just 30 seconds it was completely engulfed in flames. It was
shooting 40 feet into the air. It burned our trees, the back of the
Infinity that was next to it. Serial explosions as the tires popped.
It was snowing so hard, big giant flakes coming down, and thats the
reason, I think, the house didnt catch on fire. All my neighbors came
to watch the car burn and prayed it wouldnt catch it (the home) on
The company couldnt blame Simkiss for not getting the car fixed under
a recall. Instead, the company contended there was only 50% certainty
that the seat heater caused the fire. Maybe it was a forest fire
nearby that started it or someone smoking in the car, Simkiss said
Simkiss was reimbursed $4,000 by his insurance company for half the
value of the car. His insurance company, in turn, sued Volvo. The
manufacturer doesnt want to admit the defect, he said.
Simkiss said that Volvo has not included his model year in the recall.
He wrote on the website that Volvo refused to expand the recall to
1994 models because the incidents are less frequent than in other
models, in part, and because they dont think theres a great risk
for personal injury because theyve found theres enough time to leave
the car before the seat catches fire.
Johnston said he was not aware of the company having said that and
doesnt specifically know why the recall wasnt expanded to 1994 and
1995 Volvo 850 models. I do know that if NHTSA (National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration) believed, after looking at our data and
comparing it with their data, along with their concerns, if there was
a need to go further back, they would have asked us to include other
model years. Now whether there was a different seat heater system in
prior years or later years, I dont know, he explained.
Simkiss said he sympathizes with a companys reluctance to issue a
recall for earlier models, in part, because it pushes up the price of
all the cars. Perhaps its a moot point, with few 1994 Volvos still on
the road, many of which no longer belong to the original owners. But
there is a pattern of fires, and he thinks the company should broaden
the recall, he said.
Fires are bad. Its almost like an exploding car. If I were driving
at a high speed, I dont know if I would have had time to pull over.
James said he just created a blog about the experience on
volvoonfire.blogspot.com ; the domain is Volvo on Fire. And, of
course, as a film guy, hes planning to make a micro-documentary to
post on it.
If you own a car, particularly if you are the second owner and
unlikely to have received a recall notice, check out the website of
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for recall or
defect information. Also, call your dealer and ask if there have been
any recall problems. The dealer will fix them for free.