Hot fuel on trial: Kansas case is dust in the wind; other lawsuits will carry on

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 9/25/2012

The class-action lawsuit over hot fuel is dust in the wind in Kansas, but the plaintiffs in other cases against fuel retailers will carry on.

A 10-member jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas delivered a verdict on Monday, Sept. 24, that favored defendants QuikTrip, 7-Eleven and Kum & Go, which were sued by Kansas businessmen Zach Wilson and Matt Cook.

Wilson, owner of a traveling entertainment company, and Cook, a trucker with FedEx Ground, came up short in trying to prove “willful deception” by the companies that sold them “hot fuel.”

Hot fuel is the term given to retail fuel sold without accounting for temperature. The warmer the fuel at the pump, the bigger the rip-off to consumers who get less fuel energy per gallon than they pay for, the plaintiffs argued.

Despite the verdict, the issue of hot fuel is not dead. Plaintiffs in some two-dozen other suits in the consolidated case have a shot, particularly in warmer states, attorneys say.

“This is one small part of what’s been a six-year battle,” Robert Horn, lead attorney for the Kansas class, told Land Line following the verdict. “It certainly doesn’t end it, and there are certainly a lot of good things we can take this out of this.”

The lawsuits remain under U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil’s jurisdiction in the District of Kansas.

Plaintiffs began filing lawsuits in 2006 in 26 states plus DC and Guam following an exposé in The Kansas City Star that reported hot fuel was costing consumers billions. Long-haul truckers were among the first to recognize that the temperature of the fuel they bought seemed to affect how far they could travel after a fill-up.

Plaintiffs want retailers to install automatic temperature compensation, or ATC, on their fuel pumps to make sure consumers get the exact amount of fuel energy they pay for.

During the Kansas trial, defendant attorney Tristan Duncan called the hot fuel lawsuits “frivolous,” saying a gallon of liquid fuel amounts to 231 cubic inches regardless of temperature, adding there is no intention by the retailers to deceive.

Horn said the plaintiffs don’t buy that.

“It’s anything but a frivolous lawsuit,” he said.

To date, ATC installation remains voluntary, not mandatory. Curiously, retailers in Canada use ATC to keep from losing money because of cold fuel.

A group of 10 retailers operating in the U.S. have offered to settle by putting up $21.6 million to convert pumps to ATC during the next few years. Judge Vratil has the final say on the settlement agreements.

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