Third-party logistics provider Kane Is Able claims a group of compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered Volvo VNL tractors it purchased last year are defective and unsafe, leading one of them to catch on fire and explode back in January. With the cause of the fire still unresolved, Kane has sued Volvo and the trucks' engine and fuel system makers, and Volvo says it believes the claims against it "are without merit."
The three defendants — Volvo Trucks, Cummins Westport and Agility Fuel Systems — all deny Kane's claims in statements to Fleet Owner.
From news at the time and the case background provided in Kane's complaint, there's a striking about-face surrounding the CNG tractor purchase. In late July 2014, the arrival of Kane's seven Volvos promising better fuel efficiency and lower emissions was cause for a media event and praise from local officials at the Scranton, PA-based company. Pete Westermann, then Kane's president and CEO, stated that "adding these natural gas trucks to our fleet makes good fiscal and environmental sense."
A little more than five months later, one of the Volvos — which had logged about 3,000 mi. — burst into flames while hauling a load down I-81. It was Friday evening, Jan. 2, at about 6:45 p.m. when the fire started some 40 mi. north of Scranton, according to Kane, which has also released what it says is a video of the event filmed by a passerby.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather data for the area show the day had a high of 40 deg. F and a low of 26, which followed three days of slightly deeper cold; the sun had set two hours before the incident, almost to the minute.
Kane notes that there were no injuries. "Thankfully, the driver was not injured and the fire occurred on a remote stretch of I-81," a spokesman for Kane tells Fleet Owner.
According to Kane's civil complaint, the fire "caused total destruction of the tractor, the attached Kane trailer and customer cargo." Kane is joined in the lawsuit by the insurers that covered the truck and cargo, and seeks to return the remaining CNG Volvos under warranty and be repaid for the whole of the fleet purchase and other related damages claimed.
Kane's alleged cause
The lawsuit lays out Kane's and the insurer plaintiffs' theory of what caused the Jan. 2 fire, what ignited first and where, which it states was supported by expert examination of the burned truck. "The fire originated in or near the exhaust system running beneath the passenger door of the tractor and quickly engulfed the entire cab," the complaint states.
It also alleges that "the subject fire was caused by intense heat emanating from the exhaust system of the tractor which ignited paint, fiberglass and/or other combustibles in the vicinity of the exhaust system." Here, Kane begins to point the finger at the CNG tractor's 12L Cummins Westport ISX12 G engine.
The heat buildup around the exhaust, the complaint states, "was the result of the manner in which compressed natural gas engines burn and is a condition well known to [the] defendants." The suit alleges Volvo, Cummins Westport and Agility Fuel Systems were aware of excessive heat problems with earlier-manufactured copies of that engine, pointing to a related recall.
In March 2014, Fleet Owner posted a release regarding that recall, which along with other engines involved Cummins Westport ISX12 G engines made for about a year up through Feb. 2, 2014. Describing the cause of the recall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted "that condensation in the tubes that distribute air coming into the engine may freeze during cold weather, with the resulting ice interfering with air pressure sensor operation."
In turn, the sensor interference could raise exhaust temperature "or cause flames from the exhaust pipe, which could burn a person or cause a fire," NHTSA stated concerning affected engines.
A Kane news release from June 3, 2014, provides some context for when the company's seven CNG Volvos were assembled: it noted then that a cohort of the company's execs had "recently visited Volvo [Trucks]' Dublin [VA] plant for a review of the trucks while they are in assembly."
In the lawsuit, Kane implies it believes its CNG Volvos' engines may have been part of the recall or suffered a similar defect, and later makes more serious contentions specific to Cummins Westport. The lawsuit alleges the trucks' OEMs were negligent in what it describes as "the inadequate design of the exhaust sensors, exhaust insulation and/or improper installation of insulation around the exhaust piping [that] permitted the emission of heat well in excess of safe operating levels."
"Found no support"
Volvo Trucks responds in a statement regarding the lawsuit, "We believe the claims against Volvo are without merit. The vehicle involved in the Jan. 2, 2015, incident was equipped with an engine not manufactured by Volvo. In addition, the fuel tanks were neither manufactured nor installed by Volvo.
"However, Volvo thoroughly investigated this incident in conjunction with the engine and tank manufacturers, keeping both the customer and NHTSA fully updated throughout," the company states. Further, Volvo notes that it provided Kane with rental trucks at no cost while the incident investigation ran its course.
"After extensive investigation, we were unable to identify any defect in the design, materials, or manufacturing in any of the components installed by Volvo. Our testing found no support for the cause of the fire suggested by Kane," Volvo states in its response.
The company also addressed the Kane lawsuit's inclusion of information on the recall. "The recall mentioned in the complaint was not a Volvo vehicle recall, but rather a February 2014 Cummins [Westport] engine recall which affected multiple vehicle OEMs," Volvo states. "After inspecting the remaining Kane trucks, Cummins [Westport] assured Volvo and Kane that the engines were not part of that recall, and had in fact been manufactured with the corrective measures implemented by Cummins [Westport] as a result of the recall."
For its part, Agility Fuel Systems provides this statement regarding the case: "Based on our investigation, we do not believe the fuel system caused or contributed to the incident." Agility declined further comment as the trial litigation is pending.
Cummins Westport, which as the engine OEM ultimately is the focus of many of the lawsuit's claims, says its own investigation similarly found that the components it installed in the tractors were in good order. "Cummins Westport confirmed that the engine and all related systems were operating normally and reliably, and were not contributing factors," the company tells Fleet Owner.
The company adds, "Cummins Westport and both parent companies continue to be committed to providing the highest quality products and services to our customers."
In the lawsuit, Kane's attorneys make additional claims tantamount to suggesting some sort of cover-up on the part of the three OEMs. But first, the suit alleges Volvo conducted testing of one of Kane's undamaged CNG tractors. In lab tests, including on a dynamometer, the Volvo day cab "showed temperature readings around the exhaust system in excess of 500 deg. F after only one-half hour of operation," the suit states.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit also alleges activities by Cummins Westport technicians that it contends may warrant punitive damages. "Cummins [Westport] technicians at the request of Volvo and/or Agility entered Kane's premises and tested and/or altered sensors in the exhaust system of the remaining CNG units," the lawsuit states.
Later, the suit again references this technician visit, providing further detail and claiming at least part of the purpose was to spoliate — i.e., despoil — evidence. Technicians "entered Kane's premises and recalibrated, tested, altered and/or modified sensors found in the undamaged CNG trucks.
"[The] defendants intentionally modified, altered and/or recalibrated the sensors in an effort to conceal problems with those units," the complaint continues. The purpose of the alleged activity, the plaintiffs claim, was "to avoid another recall for the 2014 model units."
A spokesman for Kane tells Fleet Owner this is to be a point of investigation in the trial. "Kane knows for certain that Cummins [Westport] technicians were onsite to examine the sensors [on the undamaged Volvo tractors] to determine whether they were experiencing problems that were associated with the recall," the spokesman states. "Kane did not receive any data from that testing, so the purpose, results or precise activity will be the subject of discovery in the case."
Kane's and the OEMs' positions illustrate a clear difference of opinion — and an impasse. Kane contends the fire was due to no user or maintenance fault, and states it refuses to operate any of the remaining six CNG Volvos "until the cause of the fire ha[s] been identified and/or until Volvo certifie[s] that the problem ha[s] been addressed and the vehicles could be operated safely."
"To date, Volvo has failed to satisfactorily warrant the safety of these remaining tractors," the lawsuit asserts.
In its statement, Volvo Trucks makes a contrary recommendation. "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," the company states.