Manufacturer denies claim after mother's recalled SUV catches fire

General Motors says notices mailed

INDIANAPOLIS - An Indianapolis woman says her car caught fire just minutes after she got her 9-month-old baby out.

Michelle Shetler contacted the Call 6 Investigators after she discovered her 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer had been recalled, along with more than 300,000 other Trailblazers across the country.

Shetler was headed to her grandmother’s house in Brownsburg when it happened Dec. 7, 2013.

"I just unhooked the car seat, took her inside with grandma, came back out to grab her diaper bag and that's when I saw the smoke and the fire," said Shetler. "Right here in the door was up in flames. We missed it by two minutes."

Her daughter was not hurt, but her Trailblazer had smoke and fire damage, along with her belongings inside.

"It took out my door, the whole steering wheel down, along the door frame, my kids’ car seats," said Shetler.

Shetler said she had been paying on the vehicle since she bought it used from a dealership in 2007 and had hoped to pay the vehicle off entirely within a month.

"It was like, 'My truck's in flames,'" said Shetler. "I've paid $510 a month for six years."

She searched the Internet and found that her Trailblazer was recalled in August 2012.

The problem -- fluid may enter the driver door module, causing a short that can cause overheating, melting, smoke, or fire.

"I never received a recall notice, not one," said Shetler.

Shetler contacted General Motors to get her vehicle replaced, but her claim was denied.

"I was frustrated and mad," said Shetler.

Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney checked with GM. The company confirmed Shetler’s vehicle identification number was part of the recall.

Federal records show 310,918 2006-2007 Chevy Trailblazers affected by the door module recall.

It's not clear how many Indiana vehicles were included in the recall, but data Kenney obtained from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles showed more than 10,000 registered 2006-2007 Trailblazers.

A document from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed 742 complaints to General Motors and the federal government about the door problem, including 80 fires or crashes, and four reported injuries of smoke inhalation or burns.

Alan Adler, spokesman for GM, said the manufacturer sent recall notices to Michelle Shetler’s home on four separate occasions.

"Our ESIS (insurance) group told Ms. Shetler that her claim was denied because the vehicle had not been repaired following multiple recall mailings to her address of record," said Adler in an email to Kenney. "According to our records, an advisory letter (prior to recall fix being available) was mailed on 10/8/2012. The recall letter was mailed on 3/12/13 and there were two post card reminders mailed on 8/30/13 and 11/29/13."

After Kenney began inquiring about Shetler’s case, General Motors sent an investigator to an Indianapolis salvage yard to take pictures of her Trailblazer.

The company said it still does not know what caused the fire.

"The photos have been reviewed. Investigators are saying they do not believe the fire was related to the door module that was subject to the recall," said Adler in an email.

Adler said 44 percent of vehicles affected by the door module recall have been fixed.

"Owners are urged to respond to safety recalls in a timely manner," said Adler in an email.

Adler declined an on-camera interview, but said the company does not typically inspect vehicles that are not part of a lawsuit.

"General Motors tries to put the customer first in everything we do. The initial claim denial in Ms. Shetler's case was based on the best information we had at the time," said Adler in an emailed statement. "When we examined photos of her vehicle, we did not think the fire was caused by the door module short circuit that was the subject of the recall. We are working with Ms. Shetler to resolve this matter."

Kenney sent the photos of Shetler’s burned vehicle to Clarence Ditlow, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group that watchdogs the government and auto industry.

Ditlow said it looked like the fire started in the door.

"The fire is right in the area of where the power window module is," said Ditlow. "If the power window's switch didn't cause this defect, some other electrical defect in that vehicle did."

Ditlow said consumers should act promptly when they receive a recall notice.

"What consumers can learn is if you don't get the recall remedy done before the defect or fire occurs, it's an uphill battle with the manufacturer," said Ditlow.

GM has offered to reimburse Shetler for the belongings inside the car and her insurance deductible. Shetler is not satisfied with GM's response and is driving a friend's car to get around.

"I want them held responsible," said Shetler.

Her insurance company, Foremost, is covering more than $9,000 for her loss.

A Foremost spokesperson said the company is filing a claim with General Motors, and if that claim is denied, the insurance company may take additional measures.

New Notices; Protecting Yourself

Many consumers get a recall notice in the mail and simply pitch it, thinking it's junk mail, Ditlow said.

You can protect yourself by looking for notices in the mail that say “Recall” on them.

Starting Feb. 18, manufacturers are required to use a specific safety recall label.

Recall Notice

"It should have something like safety recall notice on the envelope. When they get that, they should schedule an appointment with the dealer to get the car fixed as soon as possible," said Ditlow. "If the consumer knows about the defect before they get the letter, call the manufacturer or call the dealer and ask if you can bring it in now."

For vehicle safety recalls, automakers are required to provide drivers with a free and effective remedy and attempt to notify owners according to federal regulations.

While manufacturers are responsible for contacting their customers, NHTSA offers several tools consumers can use to receive immediate alerts about recalls affecting them prior to a company sending out consumer notification letters.

You can also go to www.safercar.gov and click on “Search for Recalls.” There, you can look up your car and sign up for email alerts when there is a recall.

"Some defects are so serious that you don't want to drive the vehicle or you want to watch out for the symptoms of the defect occurring," said Ditlow.

The agency also offers the free SaferCar mobile app, which provides recalls on new vehicles and many older models.

A version of the app for Android users is expected to be released soon.

In addition, consumers can follow the agency on Twitter.com/NHTSAgov or on Facebook.com/NHTSA.
 
NHTSA posts information on new recalls as the reports are posted to the agency’s website. 

If a consumer is unsure of whether their vehicle has been recalled, they can also call NHTSA’s Auto Safety Telephone Hotline: 888-327-4236.

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