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Dude, Your Car’s on Fire: Consumer turns to 7 ON YOUR SIDE to get out of a lease agreement

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A new parent at age 42, there is nothing more important to Jonathan Reff than protecting his 2 year-old-daughter, Stella.

“She is everything to me,” said Reff.

And she was all he could think about when his car caught on fire.

It was the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, and Reff had pulled his 2016 Jeep Cherokee Latitude into a parking spot under the Best Buy in northwest Washington, DC. As he stepped out of the car, Reff said flames shot out from under the engine block. Fast-acting witnesses put out the fire in the garage, a space too tight for firefighters to drive their trucks down.

“Can you imagine the guilt of potentially driving a moving bomb?” said Reff, still shaken by the incident. “I could've been blown up and left a 2-year old fatherless.”

Five days later, just down the street in Glover Park, a friend of Reff’s captured video of a car engulfed in flames. It was a different year, a different model, but clearly, another Jeep. SEVEN ON YOUR SIDE contacted the driver of that Jeep. He said he was cruising down Wisconsin Avenue when another driver yelled out, “Dude! Your car’s on fire!” He escaped before the Jeep burst into flames. The driver contacted Chrysler, but in a letter back to the consumer, the car manufacturer denied “responsibility” in the matter.

Shaken to his core by both fires, Reff refused to get back in his Jeep, and he asked the dealership where he leased the vehicle to let him out of his lease. But the fire had to be investigated before Darcars and Chrysler would determine what to do with Reff’s car.

SEVEN ON YOUR SIDE looked at safety records for the Jeep that Reff drove, and did not find a pattern of unexplained fires.

However, every week, the Center for Auto Safety in DC hears from close to 100 consumers with safety concerns. In the District, normal Lemon Laws apply if you’ve had four repair attempts. If the problem is a safety-related defect, a driver needs to have one attempt at a repair. But that would mean Reff would have to drive the car again until it caught on fire again.

“Manufacturers will push them away and tell them, it’s not a problem, we can take care of this,” said Michael Brooks of the Center for Auto Safety. He said that it is unusual for a dealership to let a driver out of a lease, even if a consumer is afraid to drive the vehicle any longer.

“The squeaky wheel is your best, cheapest, and first course of action,” recommends Brooks. “Lawyers and small claims court can get expensive.”

In Reff’s case, Chrysler authorized a repair. Darcars would fix it for free. But Reff had lost all trust in the car – it was brand new and there had been no warning that a fire, or any mechanical problem, was imminent.

“In no way, shape or form would I be able to psychologically do that [get back in the car],” said Reff. “No adult would put their family at risk like that again knowingly.”

Reff rented a car, stopped paying the lease, and was immediately notified by Chrysler Capital that he was in default and his credit could be impacted. After nearly three weeks of waiting for a resolution, Reff asked 7 On Your Side to step in.

We called Darcars that day. And that night, they gave Reff a new lease in a new Lexus.

“I have to say I've never seen such a quick response time,” said Reff, thrilled with his new arrangement, a better deal than the one he had before.

Seven On Your Side received this statement from a Darcars representative:

“DARCARS is committed to the highest level of customer service, and our customers count on us to protect and advocate for them. As a dealer, we are obligated to work though Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' investigation and warranty process. However, this process takes time and can be frustrating. Before we were contacted by ABC 7 we were working closely with Mr. Reff to ensure he got the resolution he wanted. We broke the lease on the Jeep Cherokee and last night were able to find him a vehicle that suits his needs. When cases like this occur, we work quickly to do what is right and we strive to exceed the expectations of the million customers in the Washington D.C. metro area who choose DARCARS. Mr. Reff is extremely happy that DARCARS went above and beyond to help him.”

Seven On Your Side also reached out to Chrysler. Spokesman Mike Palese initially agreed to do an interview via Skype, but changed his mind after answering questions by phone.

“Vehicle fires are not uncommon,” said Palese. “This was a minor incident.”

He explained, it appeared that the heat shield became loose and melted, and could be fixed. He admitted, the holidays may have slowed the process, but they were “already moving in the direction of giving the customer what he wanted.”

Reff said he was never given an indication that anyone was moving in the direction he wanted, which was why he called 7 ON YOUR SIDE in the first place.

One month after the resolution, Nicole McGrath, the Darcars manager in charge of “customer experience,” agreed to sit down with 7 ON YOUR SIDE to better explain what happened. Because he had felt shut out of the process, we invited Reff to attend the meeting.

“If Chrysler doesn’t take the Jeep back, will you lease it again, or sell it?” asked 7 ON YOUR SIDE.

“No, we would never sell that car again. We adhere to the highest standards of safety and quality,” said McGrath.

“But the suggestion was the car was fixable, that you wanted him to stay in the vehicle,” said 7 ON YOUR SIDE.

“I do believe that the suggestion from the manufacturer was that it could be fixed and the car would be fine. I don’t blame him wanting to get out of that lease,” said McGrath. “Keep in mind, this was a rare event. Once we were made aware at the executive office, we made a decision right away [to give Reff a new car and new lease].”

McGrath turned to Reff and apologized to him for the ordeal. But she stood by her staff at Darcars and said the case was handled appropriately. Reff agreed that one employee at Darcars was particularly sympathetic, but Reff had the impression that his hands were tied.

“So did 7 ON YOUR SIDE help resolve the situation?”

“Seems like it was simultaneous,” said McGrath. “Maybe just a happy coincidence.”

Either way, Reff got more than he ever expected -- an incredible deal, and peace of mind for passenger number one.

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