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You Can Sue the Lube Shop for Engine Trouble, but Your Case Isn’t Watertight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: I recently went to a quick lube place and two months later the engine seized. The mechanic who looked at the engine said the oil level was four quarts below normal. I wonder if the quick lube place forgot to put oil in it. My engine was perfect before. Can i sue?

Q.C.

Answer: Of course you can sue. Anybody can sue. The question is whether your claim has any legitimacy and how you could possibly prove your quickie lube shop forgot to put oil in the engine.

If the shop forgot, the meltdown would have occurred that day, not two months later. Even if the shop underfilled the engine, your warning light should have indicated an oil-pressure problem prior to the seizure. And what excuse do you have for not checking your dipstick for two months?

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When an engine seizes, it can throw a connecting rod or part of a piston right through the oil pan, or even the crankcase, which can account for oil loss, according to Joe Forgacs, owner of Family Smog & Auto in Bellflower.

So your snappy lube oil shop will probably claim the seizure was caused by another problem and that the oil was consumed during the breakdown.

Still, your suspicions are not completely off track. Engines generally seize for lack of lubrication or because they overheat. The lubrication problem could be a plugged oil channel or a malfunctioning oil pump. Or possibly the water pump failed or you lacked adequate coolant in your radiator, and the engine temperature gauge failed to warn you of the problem. And in many cases, temperature gauges do fail to shine an alert if the coolant level drops below the sensor in the block.

Spending $2,000 or $3,000 for a new engine is a bitter pill, but you’ll need more direct evidence if you want to go after the oil-change shop. On the other hand, lawyers often win cases that make outrageous claims. But even if you win your case, any settlement will be prorated to reflect the mileage that you received on the engine before it was destroyed.

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Q: I have heard warnings about not topping off a gas tank at the filling station. Warnings are even posted at some pumps. But why is this so important? I can get a whole extra gallon into my tank after the pump automatically shuts off the first time.

R.T.

A: If you just follow the simple advice, you can avoid some very complicated and costly problems. But too many motorists ignore the advice of manufacturers and gasoline companies and fill up until unleaded is slopping from the filler neck of their gas tanks.

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The problem is, overfilling can incapacitate the purge system--known technically as the evaporative emission system--according to Sam Memmolo, a master automotive technician and nationally known repair expert.

The system captures gasoline fumes from the tank and stores them inside a charcoal or carbon medium. Then, under certain operating conditions, the car’s computer sends a signal to a solenoid valve that opens the purging operation. Fumes are fed into the engine and burned, thereby reducing emissions and improving gas mileage.

But by overfilling the tank, you run the risk of giving the charcoal canister more gasoline vapors than it can store, adds Memmolo. Then, when the solenoid opens the purging system, the engine may be deluged with gasoline vapors that can create an over-rich fuel-air mix and cause the engine to hesitate and run poorly.

In the long run, overfilling can ruin the charcoal canister, and leave the car with chronic engine problems until the costly canister is replaced.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053. E-mail highway1@latimes.com.


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