From Detroit Free Press
A federal judge may soon rule whether General Motors Corp. will face a national class action suit accusing GM of selling millions of vehicles with a faulty coolant.
The suits stem from GM's use of Dex-Cool, a coolant it first introduced in its vehicles in 1995 and sold in more than 35 million cars and trucks between 1995 and 2004. According to GM, 14 federal and state lawsuits seeking class-action status have been filed against GM over a variety of engine problems linked to Dex-Cool.
Customers have complained of problems ranging from small coolant leaks to complete radiator and engine failure. Court documents show that GM has received tens of thousands of repair requests related to Dex-Cool and engine gaskets in the affected models and considered recalls for some models.
The company has issued several technical bulletins to its dealers about cooling-related problems in the engines, but says it prefers to handle customer complaints on a case-by-case basis.
When GM introduced the orange-colored Dex-Cool, it said in owners manuals that Dex-Cool could last up to five years or 100,000 miles without being replaced, and later extended Dex-Cool's life to 150,000 miles. Dex-Cool uses a different set of chemicals to protect engine parts than traditional green-colored coolant, which requires more frequent replacement, and GM was the first U.S. automaker to use it.
Attorneys for the owners say that clause means GM should repair any Dex-Cool-related problems, even if they crop up outside the engine's typical three-year or 36,000-mile engine warranty.
"What we're looking for is to have GM step up and honor its warranty obligation," said Eric Gibbs, a San Francisco attorney and one of the lead lawyers for the owners. "There's a significant public interest in this problem, no question about that."
GM claims that the owners manual clause was not a warranty, but a service interval. In its court filings, the automaker says Dex-Cool "has performed without problems in the vast majority of GM vehicles."
"The recent motion to certify a class action is unfortunate," said GM spokeswoman Geri Lama, "and the situation with our customers has been grossly overstated through unsubstantiated allegations in statements which have not been proven in court and will be vigorously defended."
Six of the federal lawsuits have been consolidated in a federal court in East St. Louis, IL, U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy could rule at any time whether the cases, which have about 100 named plaintiffs, should be granted class-action status, meaning they could represent millions of former and current GM owners.
Three similar lawsuits has been filed in Canada, while a state lawsuit in Missouri has already won class-action status, a decision GM is appealing.
The troubles blamed on Dex-Cool range from leaking coolant to blown engines, and often include failed intake manifold gaskets, pieces that rest between the engine block and the air intake to prevent coolant and oil from leaking. Replacing a gasket usually runs about $700, but a bad gasket can cause enough damage that the engine has to be replaced.
Mixing Dex-Cool with another coolant can cause other problems, and GM doesn't recommend using other coolants in Dex-Cool engines, although some mechanics do swap coolants.
About 110 complaints of coolant leaks in the GM vehicles targeted by the lawsuit have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to a Free Press review. The agency rejected a call for a defect investigation in 2002, saying the problems weren't safety related and was therefore outside its purview.
Many of the complaints say the problems appear to begin around 60,000 miles, well beyond the engine's warranty but sooner than many customers believe they should have problems with their cooling systems. A few have been reported as early as 20,000 miles.
Mark Reynolds, a radiator repair shop owner in San Carlos, CA, says he sees one or two GM vehicles a week with Dex-Cool problems. A typical repair requires flushing the cooling system and in some cases taking the radiator apart.
"It's a shame -- vehicles in their fourth or fifth year with this awful, gooey mud attacking the top of the radiator cap and fouling up the radiator," he said.
GM has argued against certifying the lawsuit as a class action, noting that state courts in Michigan and California have already turned down similar lawsuits. It contends that the plaintiffs want to represent past and present owners who don't have any problems, and that they "complain of just about everything that can go wrong with a vehicle, attributing every bit of it to Dex-Cool."
Lama said if a GM customer has a problem beyond the warranty, GM has a process for dealing with it through its dealers.
"The first priority of General Motors and its dealers is helping our customers," Lama said.
Copyright 2006 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.
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