Whistleblower: Oil change ends in flames

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 13, 2012 - 10:47 AM

A U student took his vehicle in for routine maintenance. It now needs $8,537 in repairs.

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Yonas Bekele held a $8500 repair estimate to fix the fire damage done to the engine of his 1993 Lexus, as the car sat in his home's driveway in Plymouth.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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What started as a routine oil change ended with Yonas Bekele's 1993 Lexus bursting into flames at a local Jiffy Lube.

Now, he said, the car is too dangerous to drive unless he spends over $8,500 to make needed repairs -- leaving Bekele without a car to get from Plymouth to his classes at the University of Minnesota.

"I'm exhausted and mad," he said. "I'm having a hard time paying rent. I can't afford another payment."

After the fire broke out during the service, Jiffy Lube replaced some damaged components on Bekele's Lexus. But a spokesman for Heartland Automotive Services, Jiffy Lube's parent company in Texas, said Bekele's request for additional repairs reflected "unreasonable expectations for his older vehicle." The company said, however, that it will follow up to investigate his concerns.

Bekele, 31, is an Ethiopian native who lives in Plymouth and commutes to Minneapolis, where he studies construction management and civil engineering full time at the U. Five years ago, he bought a used Lexus ES 300, which he usually takes to the Jiffy Lube on Campus Drive in Plymouth.

On Jan. 23, Bekele took the Lexus in for an oil change. He was told by an employee that the fuel filter was dirty and needed to be changed. He took a seat in the waiting room and looked up at a TV monitor, which showed mechanics working in the garage.

"Suddenly I saw a fire through the monitor," Bekele recalled. "I looked around and my car is on fire."

As flames shot out of the engine bay, Bekele said mechanics scrambled to find a fire extinguisher and open the garage doors to let out the smoke.

A Jiffy Lube worker said that pieces weren't properly put back after the fuel filter replacement, Bekele said, causing gas to leak out and catch fire once the engine was turned on. However, Heartland Automotive Services spokesman Rob Rajkowski said the cause of the "small fire" is "unclear."

The mechanics apologized to him, Bekele said, and Jiffy Lube paid for a rental car for him to drive for three days as they repaired the car. According to invoices, they fixed the cap, ignition rotor and plug wires. Bekele wasn't convinced all the damage was repaired, so he paid to tow his car to Lexus of Wayzata.

There, mechanics found fire damage to the main engine wiring harness, firewall insulator and airbox, according to the invoice. Estimate for all of the repairs: $8,537.

Lexus of Wayzata general manager Robert Katz said that, given the car's age, "the value of it is probably less than the value to fix it."

Without the repairs, Bekele thinks the car isn't safe, so he hasn't driven it since. He has only liability insurance on the car, so he can't get help there. Bekele filed a complaint with Heartland Automotive Services, which is still pending.

Rajkowski said the company will follow up with Bekele to try to resolve the issue. "We understood he was satisfied with this resolution and have not heard from him since that date [Jan. 31, when they returned his car], so we were surprised the matter resurfaced," Rajkowski said.

After Whistleblower sent Jiffy Lube a copy of the repair estimate from Lexus of Wayzata, Rajkowski described it as "new information" that will be added to "that investigation as we work toward a final resolution."

Bekele said he will file a small claims case against Jiffy Lube, asking for a maximum $7,500. Meantime, he's borrowing his sister's vehicle as he searches for an affordable replacement for his Lexus.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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