Gwen Larison-Santos pulled over on the Mass. Turnpike in a panic after her Camaro began making ungodly noises and belching smoke. Within minutes, a state trooper arrived and opened the hood to check the oil. There was little to none in the engine.
Larison-Santos had her vehicle towed to the Firestone Complete Auto Care Center in Natick, where she had gone for an oil change three days earlier.
Firestone quickly owned up to installing the oil filter improperly and failing to test it. As a result, the oil had steadily dripped out. Mechanics know that driving a car without oil can be fatal to the engine, as it overheats and damages gaskets, seals, and other components.
But there’s no simple way to test for the extent of damage, and it’s not unusual for an engine that has been driven with little or no oil to function for another 5,000 miles or so, and then suddenly die due to the undetected damage.
Larison-Santos and her husband, Walter Santos, insist that they be made whole by Firestone. What they want is an engine in the same condition as the one they brought into the shop for an oil change, not one that may have irreversible damage.
At the very least, they want Firestone to take the engine apart to check for damage. But breaking down an engine is so expensive due to labor costs that many mechanics say don’t bother. If you take it apart only to find out it’s ruined, you have spent thousands of dollars and still need a new engine.
But Firestone has refused to cover the cost of replacing the car’s engine, which Larison-Santos and Santos say could cost $8,000 or more.
The dispute has already cost the couple thousands of dollars, as they patch together alternative transportation to get Larison-Santos to work — Uber, Lyft, car rentals, and her use of one of the trucks Santos needs for his small construction business.
Firestone at first insisted there was nothing wrong with the car but later offered a $4,000 settlement, which the couple firmly rejected. A company spokeswoman said Larison-Santos hasn’t been cooperative in having the car checked out by an independent inspector.
But after a week of dealing with both parties, I find Larison-Santos more credible. (Firestone is owned by the Japanese multinational corporation Bridgestone, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tires and other auto and truck parts.)
I came away from my phone and e-mail exchanges with a Firestone spokeswoman and a claims manager feeling like they weren’t being straight. For example, Firestone told me the couple had certified in a signed document that the car was fine on that first day it was towed to the Firestone shop in Natick.
Send me the document, I told Firestone. What I received was an unsigned invoice saying that a Firestone technician “drove vehicle outside and vehicle drove OK with no issues. Customer seen vehicle being driven.”
Larison-Santos and her husband say they signed no documents that day. They also said they saw the car being backed out of the shop into the parking lot, less than 50 feet. (From there, the car was towed to a Chevy dealership at the request of Larison-Santos.)
When I pointed out that there was no signature on the invoice, the Firestone spokeswoman, Vimala Ingram, promised to check into it and get back to me. She later e-mailed that the company has “reached out and started conversations with [Larison-Santos’s] attorney. He wasn’t aware that [Larison-Santos] reached out to the press and asked us to only speak with him. As such, we cannot provide any more details on this matter.”
The couple at one time had an attorney, David Click, but Larison-Santos long ago informed Firestone he no longer represented them.
And contrary to Firestone’s statement, Click was well aware of my involvement, because I had left explicit telephone and e-mail messages for him several days earlier. I called him even though he was no longer part of the case as I tried to quickly learn about the dispute.
Click said he had no idea how Firestone got the idea that he wanted Firestone to “speak only with him.”
Another point of contention between the couple and Firestone has to do with how much oil actually dripped out of the vehicle, an important point because the less oil, presumably the more damage done.
At the time Firestone personnel first inspected the Camaro, there seemed to be no doubt the engine was down at least five quarts of oil.
Larison-Santos and Santos watched as Firestone technicians discovered the faulty oil filter and refilled the engine with oil. The couple made a 30-minute audio recording of the conversation in which a Firestone employee said he put five quarts of oil into the engine, which has a six-quart capacity.
Yet, months later, Firestone’s corporate office tried to fend off the couple’s claim by saying, among other things, that the engine had lost only about half the oil it needed.
I also heard, in the recorded conversation, the manager plainly admitting “we messed up and we want to fix it right.”
At that juncture, with the shop manager apparently trying to resolve the matter quickly (and cheaply), Firestone offered to refund the cost of the oil change ($83.93), pay for the tow, and for cleaning oil stains on the couple’s driveway. And they’d throw in four new tires to make up for the “inconvenience.”
Later, Firestone upped its offer to $4,000 — but no new engine.
“It’s just frustrating,” Larison-Santos said. “All I’ve asked for from the beginning is that they replace the engine. They acknowledge they are responsible. They just don’t want to pay for a new engine. So they’re giving me the runaround, for almost a year now.”
I showed up at the Firestone shop in Natick to ask some questions. No luck.
But I noticed a quote from Harvey Firestone, who founded the company in 1900, in big letters over one of the doors. “I believe fundamental honesty is the keystone to business,” he said.
Noble sentiment. It’s time to put it into practice.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.