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Investigator Claims Gov't-Subsidized Electric Car Caused Garage Fire, Automaker Responds With 'SWAT Team' of Engineers & Inspectors

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"I've worked homicide scenes with less secrecy."

Move over, Volt. You may have competition in the spontaneous exploding battery department.

“Last week, a fire badly damaged the home of a new Fisker Karma owner, and authorities are saying that the electric car was the source of the blaze,” Autoweek's David Arnouts reports.

You may recall that Fisker Automotive is the same “green” car company the Department of Energy awarded a $529 million federal loan guarantee in April, 2010. You may also recall that after receiving $190 million of said DOE loan, Fisker failed to make its sales goals and instead went through two -- count them, two! -- rounds of layoffs.

The fire was started by the Fisker and it spread to the house, says Fort Bend County, TX, chief fire investigator Robert Baker.

“Yes, the Karma was the origin of the fire, but what exactly caused that we don't know at this time,” he said.

Lucky for Jeremy Gutierrez, the owner of the Karma, no one in his family was hurt and only a portion of his house went up in flames. His brand new car, however, wasn’t so lucky. It was destroyed.

 Photo courtesy: AutoWeek

Gutierrez says he parked the car in his garage and went inside. About three minutes later, the car burst into flames, according to Baker’s report. The car wasn’t plugged in when the fire started and the battery survived the blaze.

Excluding damages to the other vehicles in the garage (a Mercedes-Benz SUV and an Acura NSX), Baker puts the damage to the garage and the second floor at approximately $100,000.

But this is where the story takes an odd twist. Once news of the garage fire made its way back to Fisker, the auto manufacturer responded by sending a team of engineers to Gutierrez’s house.

Autoweek reached out to Fisker for an official comment and is what they got in reply:

Last week, Fisker Automotive was made aware of a garage fire involving three vehicles, including a Karma sedan, that were parked at a newly-constructed residence in Sugar Land, Texas. There were no injuries.

There are conflicting reports and uncertainty surrounding this particular incident. The cause of the fire is not yet known and is being investigated.

We have not yet seen any written report form the Fort Bend fire department and believe that their investigation is continuing. As of now, multiple insurance investigators are involved, and we have not ruled out possible fraud or malicious intent. We are aware that fireworks were found in the garage in or around the vehicles. Also, an electrical panel located in the garage next to the vehicles is also being examined by the investigators as well as fire department officials. Based on initial observations and inspections, the Karma's lithium ion battery pack was not being charged at the time and is still intact and does not appear to have been a contributing factor in this incident.

Fisker will continue to participate fully in the investigation but will not be commenting further until all the facts are established.

And shortly after publishing their story, Autoweek was contacted by Gutierrez’s lawyers with these disturbing details [emphases added]:

[…]

The fire department recently completed their investigation and determined the origin of the fire was, in fact, Gutierrez's newly purchased Fisker Karma hybrid electric vehicle that he just took possession of two weeks earlier. Chief Investigator for the Fort Bend County Fire Marshal's Office Robert N. Baker has concluded that the fire was accidental in nature.

Since the date of this incident, Mr. Gutierrez has been fully cooperative with public safety officials, as well as insurance adjusters and the vehicle manufacturer's investigators. In fact, Mr. Gutierrez fully accommodated the precise and somewhat peculiar demands of Fisker Automotive, who sent their self-proclaimed “SWAT Team” of engineers and inspectors (that included their own forensic cause and origin investigator) to the Gutierrez home within 24 hours of the fire. They descended upon the Gutierrez home in alarming numbers and immediately demanded a 24-hour lock-down of his home, including the remains of the Fisker Karma vehicle. They also cordoned off portions of the Gutierrez home with non-transparent tarps to block the view from the public. Fisker even had access to eyewitnesses, who were interviewed by Fisker investigators and those investigators were shown video footage of the Fisker vehicle on fire before and other part of the garage.

[...]

Despite the fact public safety and law enforcement officials have determined Mr. Gutierrez's home and vehicles are not a crime scene, Fisker Automotive released a public statement on May 8, 2012 implying fraud or malicious intent were open questions. The family is stunned by this implication.

Cordoned off? Non-Transparent tarps? What kind of team of engineers is this?

“I've worked homicide scenes with less secrecy,” Baker added. “There have to be about 15 engineers down here working on this one.”

Front page photo source: Autoweek.

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