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This question comes directly from an episode of the call-in automotive advice show Car Talk. The original call occurred in or around 1994, but recently re-aired in episode 2349, "We Specialize in All Makes Foreign and Domestic".

In his call, "Fred" (an alias) from southern Georgia tells the following story:

I was playing -- I'm a musician, I play on the weekends down here in Georgia -- and I was playing at a bar. We took a break, went out to the parking lot, and when we were coming back in it was starting to rain. And I noticed that, it was probably about a 1985-86 Ford F-150, had its truck door open. So I didn't want the person's truck to get wet. [...] So I slammed the truck door shut, shut the truck door for him. And the only thing that went through my mind at the time was, "Gee, I hope he has his keys." However, when we were playing about a half hour later, somebody ran into the bar and said, "Good heavens, a truck is on fire." And it just so happened to be the same truck.

[...]

I heard through the grapevine about two weeks later that it was an electrical short circuit, somehow, in the dash or the truck door or whatever.

The hosts' opinion was that, although "Fred" was trying to be a good samaritan and prevent the truck from getting wet, it's entirely plausible for a vehicle with a latent electrical problem to be "pushed over the edge" into failure by the action of closing the door. They conclude that, sad as it may be, the best course of action for anybody who sees a similar situation would be to just leave it alone.

From a legal standpoint, what is "Fred's" true liability here, and how likely is it that he would be found financially responsible for replacing the truck?

3 Answers 3

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what is "Fred's" true liability here, and how likely is it that he would be found financially responsible for replacing the truck?

Very low.

While his actions may have been the but for cause in fact for the fire, the fire was not a foreseeable outcome of his actions (so legal causation is absent).

He did not fail to exercise the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances who would never have expected that closing a pickup truck door to prevent it from getting wet would cause it to catch fire.

There is no indication that even the owner of the pickup knew about the latent defect, and if the owner of the pickup did know, he did nothing to warn anyone else of the risk. By leaving the door open without any warning with rain looming, the owner of the pickup truck basically invited someone in the same position to close the door.

If anyone has legal fault, it is the person whose negligence caused the electrical fault to arise in the first place, or the manufacturer for creating a defective product. More likely than not, if the truck owner knew about it, his comparative fault for not getting it fixed in a timely fashion was the problem.

If the car talk mechanics did that, they might have been at fault, knowing that this was even a possibility. But the average person or even an average car mechanic would have no idea that this could have happened.

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    I think you could look at it as a causation problem, too. If Fred hadn't closed the door, the owner probably would have anyway, leading to all the same damages.
    – bdb484
    May 7 at 0:48
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    “…been the but for cause in fact for…” — are any words missing/mistyped there?  Or if that makes sense, can any punctuation be added to help parse it?
    – gidds
    May 7 at 8:35
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    @gidds I suspect it is a reference to the but-for test. As in, "the fire would not have occurred but for the closing of the door". A hyphen in but-for probably would have helped. May 7 at 9:51
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    Considering that the car seems to have faulty wiring, and it was starting to rain, I'd think even if you knew there was a wiring issue, closing the door is still seems more reasonable than leaving it open an potentially exposing damaged electrical systems to water.
    – JMac
    May 7 at 12:34
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    The car was almost 10 years old. It seems more likely that the wiring problem occurred due to normal (or perhaps excessive) wear and tear than a manufacturing defect. I'm not sure how the owner would know about it unless it was causing other symptoms.
    – Barmar
    May 7 at 16:30
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You are not liable if you are using something in its intended way.

The most common example I see is someone opening a shop's glass door and it shattering. If you used the door normally and reasonably - you didn’t kick it open, for example - you are not liable.

So you are not liable for using a car door normally, just because you were the last person to touch it.

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Then the hosts of the show aren't very good mechanics, and I wouldn't trust them with my vehicle, or to give advice to other people. It doesn't sound like they're very good lawyers either.

it's entirely plausible for a vehicle with a latent electrical problem to be "pushed over the edge" into failure by the action of closing the door

Sure it's theoretically possible. But driving a car anywhere puts a whole lot more vibration into everything, so it's orders of magnitude more likely to fail in motion - or to have already failed, and would have lit off without any further intervention.

In order to be liable, a lawyer would need to convince a civil court that the person closing the door was the most likely cause of the fire, on the balance of probabilities. That simply isn't true (unless they dropped a lit cigarette inside as they did it, or something like that), and rebuttal of that would be trivial.

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    On the contrary, Tom and Ray Maggliozzi were actually excellent mechanics and extremely knowledgeable, but their advice does tend to err on the side of caution, especially when legal issues are in question. This is absolutely to be expected when they had a national radio show across the entire US and need to avoid legal liability. It's also unreasonable to expect a mechanic to also be a lawyer.
    – oldtechaa
    May 16 at 10:07

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