Most people who buy recreational off-road vehicles expect them to come with a certain amount of risk. Dune-buggies and other ORVs are designed to give riders a thrill. But that perception of danger isn’t supposed to be flammable. For nearly a decade, Polaris RZR off-road vehicles have been causing fires, serious injuries, and even fatalities. Despite several recalls and the largest civil penalty ever issued by the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission, the fires and the danger continue.
Polaris RZR’s Nearly Decade-Long History of Fires
Polaris Industries has always been one of the front-runners in off-road recreational vehicles. When most companies were still looking at ORVs as commercial products, Polaris was marketing to the thrill-seekers – people looking for a motorized way to enjoy the kind of trails, two-tracks, and sand dunes that make Northern Michigan special.
By 2010, several other competitor’s recreational ORVs were starting to gain traction, so Polaris souped-up its ProStar engine, making RZR faster and more powerful. But in doing so, the company made a specific design decision that put its consumers at serious risk.
In older RZRs, the primary exhaust header connecting the engine to the muffler extended beyond the side of the vehicle. This allowed one of the vehicle’s hottest pipes to cool an essential few degrees. But in the ProStar engine, that same exhaust pipe connects to the front of the engine, right behind the passenger seats, before turning 180 degrees and exiting the rear of the vehicle. Without that moment of outside airflow, the new exhaust system creates a hot spot inches from the passenger seats. And that can cause dangerous, even fatal fires.
Polaris Conceals 150 Fire Complaints
The ProStar engine was unveiled on New Year’s Eve 2010. But within months, the company’s head of product safety was already receiving complaints that the plastic panels separating the passengers for the engine were melting and smoking. At a meeting in 2011, Kenneth d’Entremont told company executives that the ORV was going to need to be recalled.
It wasn’t. Instead, Polaris issued a service bulletin telling dealers to attach aluminum sheets to the damaged panels. That way, the company could avoid notifying the Consumer Product Safety Commission of the fires and avoid the negative publicity that would come with a formal recall. Over the next 9 years, the company would receive over 150 complaints of product defects, including several involving serious personal injury, and even death.
15-Year-Old’s Fatal Off-Road Vehicle Accident
15-year-old Baylee Hoaldridge wasn’t the first to die in fires caused by the Polaris RZR engine, but it was her fatal recreational vehicle accident that seemed to awaken federal regulators to the problem. She was in a four-seat RZR 900 with her family in Utah when the vehicle rolled over and caught fire. She suffered third-degree burns on 65% of her body and had 27 operations over four months before her family finally took her off life support.
Baylee’s family’s wrongful death lawsuit was one of several against Polaris over the years. Consumers who suffered life-altering burns have filed dozens of personal injury suits, including one seeking class-action status. A key part to many of those cases is that Polaris knew about the danger and concealed the knowledge of the defective product.
Consumer Product Safety Commission Responds With $27.25 Million Penalty
With 10 heat-related recalls over 9 years and extensive litigation against the company, Polaris finally came to federal regulators’ attention in 2017. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) assessed a $27.25 million civil penalty against the company for failing to report the defects. That was the single largest penalty the agency had ever imposed. In agreeing to pay the penalty, Polaris settled any government claims for failing to report defects through June 29, 2017.
The federal penalties may be over, but the civil lawsuits continue. State and federal consumer protection cases for personal injury and wrongful death are still being filed nationwide because of the Polaris RZR fires. Even after all the recalls and the penalties, Polaris still hasn’t found a way to repair the defect, and the company isn’t willing to take one of its biggest sellers off the market. And that means it is only a matter of time before an ORV fire takes another life.
Dani K. Liblang is a consumer protection lawyer at The Liblang Law Firm, PC, in Birmingham, Michigan. She helps the victims of defective products get compensation for their injuries. If someone you love has been hurt in an ORV fire, contact The Liblang Law Firm today for a free consultation.