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Lawsuits, Safety Experts Sound Alarm About Popular Off-Road Vehicles

The parents of a woman killed by a horrific off-road vehicle fire say they blame the company for covering up deadly defects.

Last September, Paige Richmond and Joshua Whitfield were passengers in a 2017 Polaris RZR deep inside California’s Inyo National Forest when it became engulfed in flames.

“Everything was just happening so fast, and I just kept thinking I've got to get out,” Whitfield said. “I can't be on fire anymore.”

The driver and a front passenger got out first, and Whitfield eventually freed himself from his seat belt, but Richmond couldn’t get herself out.

The driver managed to pull her out, but it would be two more agonizing hours before rescue crews could find them in the forest.

“I thought, Are we going to die here?” Whitfield said.

He and Richmond were airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center. Whitfield spent a week in the hospital with third-degree burns on his arm, legs and torso.

Richmond was burned over 65 percent of her body. After two months fighting infection, two amputations and organ failure, she died.

“She lit up the room when she walked in,” said her mother, Melinda Richmond. “She just had this kind of spark about her and she was just so full of life.”

The cause of the fire was "equipment malfunction," according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"We were deeply saddened when we learned of this tragic accident last year,” Polaris said in a statement. “Our investigation into this incident and the conditions that led up to the accident are ongoing, and we will continue to take swift action if a safety or quality issue is identified.”

Half Million Vehicles Recalled

In April, Polaris recalled more than 100,000 off-road vehicles for burn and fire hazards, including the one in which Richmond and Whitfield were passengers. It was the 12th recall covering almost a half million vehicles since 2013.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently hit Polaris with the largest fine in the history of the agency, saying the company knew of defects and failed to immediately report them. Polaris agreed to pay the $27 million without admitting liability.

By the time Polaris alerted CPSC about the fire risk, it had already received reports of 150 fires, 11 injuries and one death.

Lawsuits Claim Deadly Defects

The Richmonds and Whitfield are suing Polaris, blaming the fire on "design and manufacturing defects." They said their lawsuit isn’t about money but about change.

“I don't want this to happen to anyone else,” Whitfield said. “I don't want anyone else to worry about putting their kid in the seat next to them on a camping trip and just driving to the lake for a picnic and then all of a sudden that kid's gone forever.”

“This is information that the public has a right to know, and if it can help anybody not suffer or go through any injury or death, we just want it out there,” Melinda Richmond said. “We want the truth out there.”

Their lawsuit is one of many. A class action lawsuit filed in April claims none of the recalls addressed the root problem of the fire risk.

“How do you not care? How do you not think, 'Hey, there are people getting in these vehicles and this could potentially happen to them,’” Whitfield said. “I just don't get it. I don't understand."

A lawsuit filed last month against Polaris on behalf of 300,000 Polaris owners alleges the company failed to address the root problem of the fires — "a design defect" in the engine called the Prostar. The complaint says the unusually high-powered engine is tucked directly behind the occupant compartment and creates "a significant and unreasonable risk of overheating and catching fire."

“These exhaust systems and the engines are within inches of the occupant compartment, and they're reaching temperatures that are literally twice as hot as the under hood of a car,” safety expert Sean Kane said.

Kane's research company has been investigating Polaris vehicle fires for months.

“Looking at those recalls on a more granular level you can see that this is not simply an independent component part failure problem that's leading to fire,” he said. “It's an over-arching issue. That's what the class action lays out.”

While Polaris would not address the alleged design defect or why some of the repaired vehicles are still catching fire, they did say, "With an unwavering focus on vehicle safety ... we've invested significantly in the people, processes, and tools that support quality and safety."

Repaired Vehicle Continue Catching Fire

There also are accusations the fix isn't stopping the fires — something Polaris and the CPSC acknowledged in December. In a joint statement, they said "users of vehicles that were repaired" in an earlier recall "continued to report fires."

“That statement, while it gave us some critical information, it exposed huge gaps in terms of what consumers know,” said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

She's urging the CPSC to pull the recalled vehicles off the market. She said the extent of the problem is bigger than we know.

Neither Polaris nor the CPSC are releasing to the public which repaired models have caught fire again. News4 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that information and is awaiting a response.

Statement From Polaris:

Polaris is committed to designing and building safe, innovative, and high-quality vehicles that people love to ride.

With an unwavering focus on vehicle safety and giving our customers the best riding experience in the industry; we’ve invested significantly in the people, processes, and tools that support quality and safety. Notably,

  • In 2016, we reorganized and centralized our Global Product Safety and Quality team.
  • We are introducing products to support our riders, like the Polaris Pulse, a revolutionary system available in several of our off-road vehicles, which provides consumers with a seamless way to connect accessories such as lights and sound systems to their vehicle. This type of system encourages customers to utilize the vehicle’s existing wire harness technology rather than potentially incorrectly wiring an accessory that could result in a fire hazard.
  • We instituted a Post Sales Surveillance team, with more than 30 people, which analyzes extensively diverse data sets to identify issues that may emerge.

We have a cooperative working relationship with the CPSC. In terms of our resolution with the CPSC on the alleged late reporting, we were pleased to bring that matter to a close. The settlement was not an admission by Polaris of any defect in its products or to late reporting.

We cannot comment further as the other litigation is pending. However, we look forward to sharing the facts and circumstances as we are able according to the judicial process.

Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Meredith Royster and edited by Perkins Broussard.

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