Six months ago, Gadija Loubser and her husband Iegshaan asked for diesel at the BP garage on St George's Drive outside Muizenberg. The attendant put petrol into the tank.
They didn’t check because her husband had told the pump jockey three times it needed diesel - and the tank was clearly marked “diesel”. A few blocks down the road the bakkie spluttered, cut out and they needed to be towed home.
The next day, Iegshaan, a mechanic, checked the bakkie and realised it had petrol in the tank. After raising it with the manager, he agreed to fix the bakkie. The Loubsers gave him a quote for R46 000, which he said was too expensive.
He arranged for the bakkie to be taken to his mechanic, who had it for five months without being able to fix the problem. It has been back and forth ever since: the fuel station lodged a claim with its insurer, which is prepared to pay only R11 000 for repairs.
“How do we fix our bakkie with R11 000 if the fuel pump alone costs R17 000?” Gadija asked.
Betterment isn't better
Interestingly, the insurance assessor decided there would be a 50 percent betterment applicable on the reconditioned pump as the vehicle had more than 300 000km on the clock, the turbo was damaged and the vehicle was in “poor condition”. A betterment charge is a tool insurance companies use to avoid paying for all the repairs, so, if a repair is needed to a “wear and tear” item, the insurer will pay only a portion of the cost of that replacement part.
They are responsible for returning your vehicle in the same condition as it was in before the incident, and if you’re getting a new part, it means it will be in better condition afterwards. But the Loubsers’ bakkie was in running order at the time, so why should they be made to suffer because of a staff member’s negligence?
“I was pregnant and told them the repair was urgent," Gadija said. "I use the bakkie for my business but have lost six months of finance. They have not made any effort to assist us with a courtesy car and my husband now travels to work on public transport.
“The manager admitted they were wrong. Where do we go from here?”
A press release from BP dated 2016 advises: "It is a bigger risk to have petrol contamination in a diesel vehicle because petrol has a higher calorific value and diesel has a higher compression ratio.
"Depending on the contamination ratio, you can receive different levels of damage:
'Typically if you have a diesel contamination in a petrol vehicle:
"No permanent damage to major components.
"You will need to drain and flush the whole fuel system.
"Replace fuel filter.
"In extreme cases, drain engine oil and replace oil and oil filter.
"In extreme cases, the lambda sensor might have to be replaced.
'Typically if you have petrol contamination in a diesel vehicle:
"In minor cases it will be similar to petrol-diesel scenario.
"Typically we look at the fuel pump and fuel injectors, plus the above list.
"In extreme cases it would damage the pistons and result in the diesel engine needing to be rebuilt.”
The buck stops with the owner
I told the fuel station owner and BP that ultimately, the buck stops with the owner because he was vicariously liable for his staff’s conduct or negligence. Regardless of the insurer’s decision, he should be footing the bill, not the customer.
The owner referred my query to BP's head office; Reneilwe Letswalo responded: “BP consistently strives to provide the market with the best quality fuel products, with the highest regard to customer satisfaction, and any reported incidents of non-compliance are viewed in a serious light.
“Consequently, and following a complaint in respect of the above, we are in ongoing discussions with the dissatisfied customer, the affected dealer and other parties to resolve this matter.”
Hopefully, the discussions will be expedited because the Loubsers are stuck without transport, have lost income and have a new baby in the house.
A manager at a nearby fuel station told me that if such mistakes were made, they did what was needed: drained the tank and, if there was any damage, repaired it at their cost and charged the attendant for the lost fuel. But, he said, such mistakes were rare and the damage was seldom catastrophic.
Businesses often argue that they post clear disclaimers at their fuel stations stating it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure the correct fuel is used, essentially absolving them of any liability. But such notices might be in violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
Specialist attorney Rosalind Lake explained: “It is actually the responsibility of the driver to ask for the type of petrol or diesel that they require for the vehicle - if the driver clearly asked for a particular type of fuel and the attendant put in the wrong fuel which caused damage, this would be negligent and they would then be liable for the damage caused.
“Unless of course they can show that they had a disclaimer or notice (which complies with the requirements for these clauses in the CPA) that excludes their liability for their negligence.”
She said that although the CPA governed the transaction and its terms, the remedies for the Loubsers under the act were limited.
"The harm caused here was not because the fuel was defective or unsafe which would be governed by the CPA, it was because it was the incorrect fuel for the vehicle. Therefore the consumer would have to claim in a contract or claim for damages in court as opposed to a body established under the CPA. It does not matter what their insurers are prepared to pay though - the test is what harm they are liable for.”
If you realise the incorrect fuel has been pumped into your tank inform the station manager and don't start your car. If you have started it, switch it off and have it towed to a workshop. The longer it’s driven, the greater the damage.