Mary didn’t know anything was wrong with her old Ford SUV when it was loaded onto a container ship in Europe in mid-2015. But she found out the hard way when it caught fire below deck, taking $45 million worth of other cars with it, causing another $55 million in damage to the vessel and its cargo, and sparking a legal fight between two car companies and the U.S. Department of Justice that remains ongoing.

Mary—a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was shipping her car to Belgium as part of a relocation—wasn’t aware of the 10 recall notices that went out for the Escape, including two defects that had the potential to start a fire while it was off, according to legal filings and a 2017 summary of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In total, the incident caused $100 million in damage, nearly half attributable to junked BMWs, Daimlers and Fords.

The fire set off an intense legal dispute over the damage that roped in BMW, Ford and the U.S. government, and remains entangled within the court system.

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At a time when policymakers are openly questioning the glacially slow pace of auto recalls, safety advocates say the incident aboard the ship MV Courage illustrates why changes have to be made. It also highlights a stark double standard for the auto industry: Carmakers tend to throw up their hands when asked about low recall rates, but if its their money on the line, they’ll take it to a judge to sort out liability.

The fire received relatively minor media coverage at the time, but the circumstances surrounding the subsequent investigation and ongoing court case haven’t been unpacked in full until now. The incident acutely captures a very extreme but real example of what could happen when a recalled car is left unfixed.

Attorneys for everyone involved—Ford, BMW, the U.S. Department of Justice, the owners of the vessel, the vehicle owner, and the shipping-related entities—either declined to offer comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation, or didn’t respond to requests from Jalopnik. (Mary could not be located for comment; Jalopnik is only using her first name because she’s not named as a defendant in the ongoing litigation, and hasn’t officially been found liable for the incident. She has also not been charged criminally.)

This isn’t a story meant to talk about the danger of maritime fires, exactly; it’s unclear how often they occur, nor if carmakers often sue one another over this kind of incident. What it does illustrate is the lax processes in place to ensure recalls are taken care of.

“This would appear to be a perfect example of why it’s so important to get recalls fixed,”said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “And a really good example of the need for electronic notification of recalls.”

The Courage, after the fire.
Photo: NTSB

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‘We Have Smoke, We Have A Lot Of Smoke’

On June 2, 2015, the fire broke out on the MV Courage, a 52,000-ton cargo ship, as it was traveling through the English Channel. The ship was carrying hundreds of cars and household goods belonging to American service members, but as a result of the blaze, much of it was trashed, all over a 2002 Ford Escape under recall.

The Courage was a 653-foot-long vessel used to carry cars and trucks between ports in the U.S. and Europe. With a set of 12 cargo decks onboard it is a RoRo, or roll-on/roll-off ship, like the many that cross the oceans moving cars around the world.

On this particular journey in June 2015, it was carrying new production vehicles from Mercedes-Benz and BMW, as well as military vehicles and personally-owned cars for government personnel.

Location of where the fire occurred
Photo: NTSB

When the ship departed from Germany on June 1, 2015 for the United Kingdom, the crew dealt with heavy weather, with winds around 40 to 45 mph, but it was otherwise an “uneventful” ride, according to the NTSB’s summary. That changed the following day.

Around 10:15 p.m. that night, according to the NTSB’s file, one of Courage’s crew members had just completed a security round of the ship, when a fire alarm went off. He was sent to investigate and, upon heading down a ladderway onto Deck 12, discovered heavy smoke billowing up from below.

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“We have smoke, we have a lot of smoke, we have a fire,” he screamed into his radio, according to an interview summary.

Over the next hour, the crew worked vigorously to tamper the flames. By 10:30 p.m., the Chief Mate of the ship noticed the smoke “started coming out more forcefully,” the NTSB reported. Paint began to bubble on the weather decks. The team eventually retreated due to the intensity of the smoke and “set up boundary cooling” before the Chief Engineer released CO2 around 10:50 p.m.

“The master stated that the smoke intensified for a short period before stopping completely,” according to the NTSB report.

The ship was instructed by the Dover (UK) Coast Guard to continue to its destination of Southampton in the United Kingdom, where it eventually anchored offshore June 3, just over 12 hours after the blaze began. It took several days for engineers to finish venting the carbon dioxide that was used to suppress the fire, reported Stars And Stripes, before it was sent back to Germany for inspection.

All told, the fire damaged 187 BMWs worth $7.3 million, 757 Daimler vehicles worth $33.1 million, and a fleet of 221 personally-owned vehicles valued at $4.75 million, according to legal filings. By the NTSB’s account, there was another $45 million of cargo lost and $10 million in damage to the boat—$100 million of damage overall. No one was injured.

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It took investigators weeks to unpack what caused the fire. What they eventually found on the cargo deck carrying personally-owned vehicles was a 2002 Ford Escape SUV, one that had been subject to several recalls.

(Left) exterior damage to the ship, (right) damaged ramp and destroyed vehicles
Photo: NTSB

“Brake fluid leaking from the master cylinder reservoir cap had been reported to enter the vehicles’ automatic braking system (ABS) wiring harness electrical connectors, causing short-circuits, melting, and fires,” the NTSB reported. By 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knew of at least 260 vehicles that experienced a non-crash related fire.

In a world where millions of auto recalls are left unfixed—less than half of the deadly Takata airbags, for example, have yet to be replaced—what investigators found next is probably no surprise.

“The Ford Escape that was destroyed by the fire in the Courage cargo hold had not been serviced to replace the faulty parts that were the subject of the Ford recalls,” the NTSB reported.

“The owner had been overseas for a number of years and was not aware of the recalls prior to the accident.”

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BMW v. Ford

Once the recalled Escape was pegged as the source, BMW and the insurers of those vehicles wanted Ford to pay up. Quickly, every company lawyered up and prepped for a legal battle over who should be held liable for the damage.

In June 2016, BMW’s North American unit and an insurer for Daimler AG sued Ford over the incident, claiming the Blue Oval was responsible. Ford, in turn, file its own lawsuit against the shipper of the goods, GovLog NV.

“The subject Ford Vehicle had a design defect and/or manufacturing defect, which triggered and/or caused the fire onboard the M/V COURAGE,” BMW alleged in an amended complaint filed last October.

BMW initially sued the employee, Mary, until late 2016 when she was removed as a defendant after the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and said the federal government is the proper defendant to represent claims filed against her. The German automaker’s suit alleges negligence against Ford, the U.S. government, GovLog, as well as breach of contract and bailment against the shipping-related entities named as defendants.

“At the time of the subject voyage, Mary ... had failed to act on the 2011 Ford Recall Notice that advised of safety defects that had the potential to start a fire while in a key-off position,” the complaint alleges.

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As the case wends its way through the legal system, the Courage has since been decommissioned, according to MarineTraffic.com, but it’s not like this couldn’t happen again. One thing left unmentioned in the dispute is any sort of suggestion that automakers could bolster how recalls are handled. Millions of recalled cars are left on the road unfixed, and without any sort of change, it’s not inconceivable that a fire of this size could take up on any other RoRo.

“You’re looking at 30 percent of the recalls out there are unrepaired,” said Levine. “That leads to circumstances like this.”

For now, it’s about the money. BMW’s asking the federal judge overseeing the case to find Ford and the defendants liable and pay up $6.84 million for the damage, including various interests and costs associated with the case.

It’s not unusual for litigation to drag on for years, but the complicated legal maneuvering and length this case has gone on even has the judge overseeing the dispute, Jesse Furman, groaning aloud at this point. In an order this month delaying the proceedings further, Furman wrote: “In light of the totality of the circumstances, the Court (somewhat grudgingly) grants one last extension of the fact discovery deadline to August 30, 2018. No further extensions will be granted.”

The parties are due back in court September 4 for a pre-trial conference.

The Courage, as it arrived in Southampton, United Kingdom.
Screenshot: UK News In Pictures (YouTube)

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‘There’s A Lot Of Vehicles With Recalls Running Around’

Lawmakers are considering options to address the industry’s recall process, no thanks in part to the slow effort to address the Takata airbag scandal, which has left more than 20 people dead. With better recall processes in place, said Levine of the Center for Auto Safety, these sorts of costly—and deadly—scenarios could be drastically reduced.

“There’s a variety of ways these things can be improved,” Levine said. “There’s no magic wand on this, it’s going to have to be a series of different pieces.”

Automakers have been toying with ideas on how to ratchet up the recall process. Honda, for example, has been going door-to-door of affected owners and is relying on Facebook to track some of them down.

But safety groups and some lawmakers believe more should be done, especially since there’s millions of cars on the road that have some sort of defect.

“The reality is... there’s a lot of vehicles with recalls running around,” Levine said.

Levine endorsed an idea pushed recently by two Senate Democrats, who suggested that automakers could provide free loaners or rental cars on any type of recall. He also said the industry could simply beef up standards to improve the notification process, including ensuring affected drivers know what they’re entitled to.

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“The number of folks that we talk to who are unaware that recall repairs are required to be free under federal law is an alarming number,” Levine said. “People continue to be unaware.”

The industry would perhaps see a financial benefit to improving the process; at the very least, it’d save them the time and money spent on litigation over cars damaged by an unfixed recall. Levine pointed to digital notifications by email as a tool for preventing incidents like the Courage fire and, more importantly, deadly accidents.

“The industry,” he said, “doesn’t work as hard as it could to notify people.”