BELLEVILLE - One of the country's largest auto salvage companies is accused of allowing a vehicle to be destroyed despite being told to hold off because it was expected to play a central role in a legal action involving a fire.
Coparts, which has operations both in the United State and various other countries, is named a defendant in a suit born out of a fire that partially destroyed a Fairview Heights vehicle repair facility.
The suit was filed by Tami and Richard Louis, of Louis Service, who for decades operated AAMCO Transmission and Vehicle Repair on North Illinois Street. They claim they had to close down their business following the October 2018 fire.
According to the court documents and reports, a 2008 Mini Cooper caught fire inside the business, then spread to three others. The fire led to the shuttering of part of the street for a time as fire crews battled the blaze.
"They are shut down permanently...they had to close their doors," Andrew Toennies, an attorney for the couple, told the Record. "It took a while to rebuild....but could not open till Spring of this year."
By that time, they had lost many of their customers, Toennies explained, adding that this was the end of a "decent, family-owned business."
The suit, filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court, also names Clean Machine Vehicle Wash and BMW, the manufacturer of the Mini Cooper, as defendants. BMW is accused of producing a vehicle that ultimately caused the fire.
Specifically, the complaint states that as the undercarriage of the car was being cleaned, a component was loosened, which in turn caused additional oil to leak, leading to the fire. This happened when the ignition was turned off.
However, the suit states that it is impossible to know exactly what caused the fire because Coparts allowed the vehicle to be destroyed when it was transported to its facility in Alorton. Coparts, including a named individual in its media office, did not respond to a request for comment from the Record.
The negligent spoliation claim centers on the contacts between Toennies and employees of Coparts in the wake of the fire.
"Defendant Coparts is guilty of spoliation of evidence as they were notice (sic) that the vehicle should be retained and inspected by a qualified engineer to determine the cause of the fire and damage to plaintiffs' facility," the complaint states.
The suit states that Toennies sent messages and spoke to individual employees of Coparts following the fire, instructing them to hold on to evidence. After some back and forth, the attorney was allegedly told the vehicle was destroyed.
This is "negligence," said Toennies, of the Lashley Baer Law Firm of St. Louis, because the "person possessing evidence has a duty of care to hold on to it."
According to the complaint, the plaintiff's counsel contacted the Alorton facility by telephone on or around November 18 and spoke to an employee. Toennies was allegedly informed that the vehicle was stored at the site, according to the court papers.
Toennies told the employee to "hold onto the vehicle as the vehicle needed to be inspected and may be part of a law suit." The following day, the attorney states he sent similar warnings via fax, certified and regular mail.
On December 17, the complaint states, he again called the Alorton site, but was told by a different employee the vehicle was sold at the end of November. An email followed in which Toennies was informed the vehicle was destroyed.
Coparts had direct knowledge that the only way to know what caused the fire was to examine the vehicle, the suit states.
The plaintiffs allege Copart's conduct was "willful, wanton, outrageous, and grossly negligent."
Toennies acknowledged that his clients' case against BMW, and the car wash operator will be difficult and there is a chance the auto maker will be able to move for dismissal on the basis that it is simply not known what exactly caused the fire.
But certain 2008 models of Mini Cooper, including its supercharged S Clubman, have a history of catching fire when the engine is off. Further reports of fires have followed the release of later models.
In a statements to multiple news outlets in response to the claims, BMW said "fire incidents involving BMW's are very rare," and that the company "takes every incident very seriously. It added added that "vehicle fires can result from a wide variety of external reasons unrelated to product defects."
Following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, BMW of North America recalled 89,000 vehicles.
St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 19-L-472