How to tell if catastrophic engine failure was caused by a defective filter.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

My son was driving his 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse on the highway when the engine failed catastrophically. The oil filter blew off, and oil spewed all over the highway. He had it towed to the nearest dealer, who insists it should not be covered under warranty because my son "ran it out of oil." My son has serviced the car at two dealerships. The last oil change was at 31,000 miles, and it now has 37,900. He filed a complaint with Mitsubishi's headquarters, but they are sticking by the dealer. How can they claim it ran out of oil, when oil was all over the highway and under the car? Do we have any recourse? He still owes megabucks on this now engineless car. -- Charlotte

TOM: Well, the circumstantial evidence seems to be in your favor, Charlotte. But I assume the dealer is claiming that the oil filter slowly came loose, dripped a little bit of oil each day, and your son was negligent for not checking the oil level and noticing that it was low. Then, finally, when the filter fell off entirely on the highway, the small amount of remaining oil spilled out. That's the dealer's story.

RAY: And you and your son obviously believe that the oil filter was not loose, and that it simply blew off catastrophically, causing the engine to seize.

TOM: There's only one good way to find out. You have to examine the oil filter. If the oil filter looks normal, as if it did just "fall off," then you'll be hard pressed to collect from Mitsubishi. Even if you go back to the dealership that did the last oil change, I'm sure it'd be reluctant to accept the blame for a loose filter that was installed 7,000 miles ago. They'll argue -- and reasonably so -- that if they had left it loose, it probably would have fallen off 6,500 miles ago.

RAY: But if the filter did, in fact, "blow apart," it'll be visibly damaged. Any good mechanic can look at it and tell you whether it fell off or blew apart. If the filter did blow apart, it would have to be due to excessive engine oil pressure. And that would clearly be a manufacturing problem that should be covered under warranty.

TOM: So, if an independent mechanic can confirm that the filter "blew apart," then it's definitely worth going to court. If you go to our Web site, the Car Talk section of, you'll find a "Lemon Law" area. While this is not a lemon-law case, under "contact info" you should find a link to your state's bar association. Get in touch with it and ask for a referral to a lawyer who specializes in automotive cases. And good luck, Charlotte.

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