Customers from three states sued Polaris Industries Thursday, seeking class-action status and claiming the Medina-based ATV maker knowingly made defective vehicles for years that could catch fire but failed to fix the problem or notify consumers quickly.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, seeks to represent roughly 300,000 consumers who own Polaris vehicle models spanning 2011 to 2018. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright.
Officials at Polaris — one of the largest players in the recreational vehicle industry — said they had not yet seen the lawsuit and so could not comment Thursday.
The company has recalled hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the past few years, many because of a risk of fire. The lawsuit comes just days after the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a record $27.25 million civil penalty against Polaris for failing to report in a timely manner overheating problems and fires caused by its Ranger and RZR all-terrain vehicles. Polaris agreed to the settlement but did not admit or deny guilt.
Thursday’s lawsuit referenced the CPSC’s ruling but went further, claiming that Polaris’ overheating and fire risks “caused more than 250 fires, in excess of 30 severe injuries and at least three deaths.”
“Polaris has continued selling Ranger and RZR off-road vehicles with ProStar engines, despite knowing that they suffer from an acute risk of catching fire,” said Chicago lawyer Adam Levitt, who is representing the plaintiffs, in a phone interview Thursday. “Our lawsuit hopes to force Polaris to seriously confront this issue and to start putting its customers’ safety above corporate profits.”
The defective-product lawsuit was filed Thursday by three Polaris vehicle owners: James Bruner of Tallassee, Ala.; Michael Zeeck of Rushville, Ill.; and Ed Beattie of Chappell, Neb. They have asked for a jury trial and unspecified punitive damages.
The lawsuit claims that none of Polaris’ recalls addressed the root problem of the fire risk in the vehicles. It alleges that problem lay in an engine redesign that Polaris began incorporating in its vehicle models as early as 2011.
Various Polaris RZR, Ranger and General vehicle models ranging from 2011 to 2018 “all suffer from a [common] design defect that creates a significant and unreasonable risk of the vehicles overheating and catching fire,” the lawsuit said.
“The class vehicles are equipped with an unusually high-powered ProStar engine that is tucked directly behind the occupant compartment. The ProStar engine produces more power than the engines in competing vehicles and accordingly more heat,” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs further alleged that a Polaris engine redesign made in 2011 in both RZRs and Rangers used a more powerful 88-horsepower engine and also rerouted the exhaust gas pipes so they traveled toward the occupants, and then turned 180 degrees in a U shape before exiting from the rear.
“The piping lacks proper ventilation and heat shielding and is positioned within inches of combustible plastic body panels [and] within inches of the occupants,” the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs claim Polaris rushed its engine design and designed it “in-house rather than outsourcing” in an effort to save money.
While Polaris has been sued before over its vehicles, most involved plaintiffs or plaintiffs’ family members who were burned, hurt or killed while riding a Polaris four-wheeler. None of the three plaintiffs who sued Thursday suffered injuries or fires from their vehicles. Levitt said the men suffered economically because they would not have bought the vehicles had they known about design problems in advance.
During the past two years, Polaris enhanced and centralized its product safety program, created a new product-design process, hired 200 additional quality and engineering experts, enhanced post-sales surveillance and data analysis and invested in new tools and processes — all in an effort to improve safety.
It has agreed to work with the federal consumer protection agency to further improve its processes.
In announcing the settlement earlier this week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said Polaris knew that some of its RZR models from 2013 to 2016 could catch fire and that the company had in fact received reports of 150 fires.
One of the RZR fires resulted in the death of a 15-year-old passenger. The company also knew of 11 reports of RZR burn injuries and a fire that consumed 10 acres of land, the agency said.
Separately, there were 46 reports of fires involving 2014 and 2015 Ranger vehicles, the agency said.