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Sunday Times STLive By Megan Power, 2012-02-05

No probe after man's close shave

Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

Motorist who escaped a fiery death expected Nissan to investigate

When it comes to cars, many of us fit the stereotype. We're largely interested in how the car looks on the outside and how comfortable it is on the inside.

But we care little for what's under the hood. Until things go wrong. Then consumers become very interested in detail.

Reader Wessel Oosthuizen, who admits to knowing nothing about cars, certainly did.

It's little wonder. The retired sports photographer narrowly escaped death in December when his 2008 1.6 Nissan Qashqai lost power and caught alight while driving in the Karoo. Within minutes the car was ablaze and less than 15 minutes later it was completely gutted.

Why did the car go up in smoke? Nobody knows. And nobody, besides the owner, seems to care much either.

Despite Oosthuizen's efforts, he has no idea why his car, which had recently had its three-year/100000km warranty service at Nissan, is now a hunk of charred metal.

His insurer, which didn't hesitate to cover his loss, blamed an electrical short circuit but could not determine what triggered it. Because the car was so badly burnt and no foul play was suspected, it didn't probe further.

To Oosthuizen's dismay, neither did Nissan.

"I didn't ask Nissan for money; I just thought it should look into it," the 68-year-old Parys resident said. "But it wasn't interested. I called customer care but got no response.

"I then went to Nissan in person and was eventually told it would not get involved but I could appoint an independent assessor. It said insurance wouldn't have paid out if there had been a product fault," he said.

Oosthuizen asked for this response in writing but didn't hear from Nissan again.

When I approached Nissan, senior manager for customer care Jacques Labotsky said the company's position had been incorrectly relayed to Oosthuizen. I didn't find his clarified version much better.

Labotsky said Nissan would "gladly" conduct an investigation and appoint an independent fire investigator at a cost of R50000 but - and here's the rub - if no product liability was found, Oosthuizen would have to foot the bill.

So the customer, whose car burst into flames for no reason, should shoulder the financial burden if no defect is found. Why? "Because the car was fitted with a tracking device," said Labotsky. "If the car was standard, we'd pay."

According to Labotsky, cars fitted with after-market devices and accessories such as trackers, alarm systems, radios and tow bars have contributed to fires.

That's news to me. And to Netstar and Tracker, which with 2.5 million installations between them, know of no such incidents. Even Oosthuizen's insurer Santam has no knowledge of this.

And what about the Nissan service just six weeks earlier? Could there be a connection? No, said Labotsky, and there was no history of "thermal incidents" either.

Where an insurance probe determined possible product liability, he said, the case was referred to the manufacturer for further investigation.

"Unfortunately the insurer opted not to conduct such an investigation and settled the relevant claim with the client directly ... "

Head of Santam corporate affairs Donald Kau said an independent investigation would not have resulted in a different outcome, based on how badly the vehicle was burnt.

"As we did not investigate the possibility of a defect being the cause of the fire, we cannot comment on the liability of the agents towards their customers," Kau said.

Would Sanlam cover the costs of a further probe at Oosthuizen's request? Unfortunately not, Kau said.

"In this instance, the option is open for the client but it would be for his own cost. We have paid out in line with the client's policy after our own investigation. The car is available for such a probe should the client or manufacturer wish to assess it further."

Oosthuizen, who "meticulously" serviced his car with Nissan, is not amused. "I'm lucky my doors were unlocked because the car's power died when the fire started and the smash-and-grab protection on my windows would have prevented me breaking the glass," he said.

Indeed, it could have been far worse. Nobody can forget the 2009 death of satirist Justin Nurse's two-year-old daughter who died when the family's Honda Jazz caught fire in the driveway of their Noordhoek home.

The cause was indeterminable but an investigation showed that water intrusion into the power window switch housing could cause a short circuit. As a precautionary measure, Honda recalled all 2002-2008 year model Jazz units in SA to inspect and modify the switches.

It's the kind of response consumers expect when things go so terribly wrong.

Although upset at Nissan's failure to inspect his car, Oosthuizen remains surprisingly loyal to the brand; he's already replaced his Qashqai with a second.

In the interest of consumer safety, I believe Nissan had a duty to rule out a defect in Oosthuizen's car, at its own expense. It chose not to.

And Oosthuizen understandably isn't able to take a R50000 gamble.

So we're all none the wiser. Heaven help Nissan if another car burns.

Sunday Smile

At Pick n Pay, Carnival Mall, for delivering a R49.99 replacement bottle of Preen prewash to shopper Sheila Paterson's door after a faulty cap led to spillage in her shopping bag. Considering her home is 35km from the store, it was a most welcome gesture.

Sunday Snarl

At Patrick Holford's Mood Food which, according to the Advertising Standards Authority, made an unsubstantiated claim to the effect that it was able to "support mood and mental vitality". Isn't it time for the marketing and promotion of complementary medicines to be more strictly regulated?