Pennsylvania carrier sues Volvo after natural gas-powered truck explodes

By Land Line staff | 8/14/2015

A Pennsylvania trucking company is suing Volvo after its CNG-powered truck exploded in January, destroying a truck and loaded trailer only 3,000 miles into its lifespan.

Fortunately, the driver was able to pull over and exit the truck in time to watch it explode.

Kane Freight Lines is suing Volvo Group North America LLC; Cummins Westport Inc.; and Agility Fuel Systems Inc. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and seeks an unspecified dollar amount. The company is suing for negligence, breach of warranty, breach of implied warranties, and spoliation of evidence after representatives of Volvo, Cummins and/or Agility recalibrated, tested, altered and/or modified sensors in the damaged CNG trucks.

Plaintiff’s attorney John Campbell, of Yost and Tretta LLP in Philadelphia, said their case hinges on the belief that the equipment manufacturers have failed to honor both the express and implied warranty on the vehicle.

“We think on a new truck, (the warranty) should be paid,” Campbell said in a phone interview with Land Line. “It had 3,000 miles on it when it burnt up.”

According to the lawsuit, a 2014 Volvo compressed natural gas-powered tractor owned by Kane Freight Lines caught fire while headed southbound on Interstate 81 in Harford Township, Penn. The fire started in or around the truck’s exhaust system below the truck’s passenger door, quickly spreading to the truck’s entire cab. The fire engulfed the truck cab rapidly, destroying the truck and an attached trailer full of cargo.

The truck was one of seven 12-liter Cummins-Westport ISX 12 G engines powered by CNG that Kane Freight Lines received in July 2014 at the company’s Scranton, Pa., facility. The trucks reportedly can go 425 miles before refueling. Immediately following the January fire, the company refused to operate the other CNG-powered trucks in its fleet until Volvo made clear it had addressed the problem.

Campbell said the suit also references a 2014 voluntary recall involving 2013-2015 model year Volvo VNL and VNM tractors equipped with Cummins ISL G and ISX12 G engines. According to documents on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website, the voluntary recall was issued after reports of ice buildup in the exhaust system increased the risk of fire or burn injury.

“Now a year or so later, we have a fire in the exhaust area, which Volvo says it can’t explain,” he said. “We’re still exploring whether it’s related to the recall. Volvo says it’s not, but we’re not so sure.”

The lawsuit blames “inadequate design of the exhaust sensors, exhaust insulation and/or the improper installation of insulation around the exhaust piping.” Kane Freight Lines believes Volvo, Cummins Westport and Agility Fuel Systems knew about the fire risk from the CNG engines’ high levels of heat. The suit points out defendants participated in a voluntary recall with the National Highway Safety Administration after previous fires started in and around earlier CNG truck engines.

“To date, Volvo has failed to satisfactorily warrant the safety of these remaining tractors,” the lawsuit states.

A representative of Volvo said the company believes the claims in the lawsuit “are without merit.”

Volvo spokesman Avery Vise said neither the engine nor the fuel tanks were manufactured or installed by the company, and that they worked with both Cummins and Agility to review the incident. In addition, he says Volvo kept both Kane Freight and NHTSA “fully updated” throughout the proceedings, and provided Kane with rental units at no cost to support their operations during the investigation.

“After extensive investigation, we were unable to identify any defect in the design, materials, or manufacturing in any of the components installed by Volvo,” Vise wrote in an email to Land Line.  “Our testing found no support for the cause of the fire suggested by Kane.

“Safety is a core value for Volvo, and we worked closely with our supplier partners to thoroughly examine the vehicles Kane decided to park. This investigation convinced us that the vehicles should be returned to service,” Vise said.

The lawsuit also says Volvo asked Cummins technicians to examine Kane Freight Lines’ other CNG trucks after the January fire.

“Subsequent to the fire, examination of the undamaged subject units revealed similar burn and heat patterns to those observed on the fire consumed tractor,” the lawsuit states.

On June 1, Volvo took one of the Kane Freight Lines CNG trucks for testing at a New York facility and found the truck’s exhaust system heated “in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit after only one half-hour of operation,” the lawsuit states.

Even with the testing, court documents allege, Volvo and Cummins didn’t honor written warranties for both the fire-ravaged truck and the other six CNG-powered trucks.

The spoliation of evidence charge stems from an incident that Campbell says happened sometime this spring, when representatives of either Cummins or Agility contacted Kane and requested to look at the trucks to check the calibration of the exhaust sensors.

“They concluded that (the sensors) were fine; they weren’t an issue,” he said. “But we’ve asked for information as to what they did with those units, whether they touched them, recalibrated them, and we haven’t gotten any information. So at this point, to the extent that we may or may not be able to determine how those were originally calibrated and whether they were similar to the recalled vehicles, we put that allegation in there.”

Campbell stated the charge isn’t necessarily the same thing as tampering with evidence, however.

“There are various levels with that,” he said. “There are times when people actually intentionally tamper with evidence. There are times when people try to work on something, and in doing so, change the evidence – not intentionally, not to conceal anything – but it’s lost permanently, whether it’s intentional or not.”

Because of the extensive nature of the fire damage, Campbell says there’s no way for Volvo or the other defendants to determine whether or not the sensors in the destroyed vehicle were operating normally.

“That’s another reason why we think if you can’t disprove that this was not that same problem, you should pay (the warranty claim),” he said.

This article was a staff collaboration, written by Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer, and Greg Grisolano, Land Line associate editor.

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