Continual breakdowns, ineffective repairs and financial losses from disrupted operations have pushed frustrated fleet owners to sue Caterpillar Inc., along with the truck and engine dealers who sold and tried to fix the trouble-prone heavy duty diesels.
Problems with Caterpillar Acert engines have prompted some truck owners to file a lawsuit. (Photo by Steve Sturgess)
Problems with Caterpillar Acert engines have prompted some truck owners to file a lawsuit. (Photo by Steve Sturgess)

Meanwhile, another suit against Cat and one other builder is pending in Arkansas, a source told Heavy Duty Trucking. But no details of that suit were available at this writing.

The Texas lawsuit chronicles problems with Caterpillar C15 Acert engines produced with exhaust emissions equipment designed to meet federal limits imposed in January 2007. The suit involves 90 Cat-powered trucks run by three fleets. No 2010-spec engines are involved.

Stories of numerous problems with diesels since the Environmental Protection Agency's October '02/January '04 limits took effect have since been circulating in the industry. But fleet executives have tried to get satisfaction from builders rather than through lawsuits, and builders have said they are fixing problems while improving newer products.

The Texas Suit

Miller, Curtis & Weisbrod LLC, of Dallas, filed the suit March 4 in a Bowie County circuit court. The firm says more fleets have joined the complaint, and it's advertising for disgruntled owners of Cat C13 and C15 engines to contact its attorneys for possible inclusion in the suit. The ads brought the suit to light; the law firm has since commented on it to HDT, which is seeking comment from the defendants.

The suit names as defendants Caterpillar Inc., plus its "agents," Warren Power & Machinery, the Cat dealer, and Rush Truck Centers of Texas, a large Peterbilt dealer. Both dealers have locations in Texarkana, Texas, where the Cat-powered trucks were sold and serviced.

Plaintiffs are Thomason Trucking Inc., Paul Trucking Inc., and Tapley Forestry Service, all based in Oklahoma. They bought a total of 90 trucks with C15 engines in 2007 and 2008, but were not warned of the engines' defects, the suit says.

Cat and its dealer representatives "assured plaintiffs Thomason, Paul and Tapley that the engines were in perfect working order and without defects," which "induced" the fleets to buy the engines, the suit states. "However, the engines were defective when purchased" by the fleets.

"Defendant Warren and Defendant Rush have been in the business of selling Caterpillar engines for many years and knew or should have known of the defects to the Caterpillar engines," the suit continues. "Not long after plaintiffs received these engines, plaintiffs began to experience problems with the trucks these engines were installed in, which put the trucks out of service."

Consequently, the fleets "suffered substantial financial losses and other damages," the suit charged. It does not specify monetary amounts, but probably will when the law firm amends the suit, said Attorney Warren Armstrong, who is working with Miller, Curtis & Weisbrod's lead lawyer on the case, Clay Miller.

The suit charges fraud, breach of contract, breach of implied and express warranties, and violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade and Practices Act. Under this law, the trucking companies are consumers who can sue Cat and its dealers, the suit says. And bcause of the alleged fraud, defendants are entitled to treble damages.

"In particular it's the regeneration system" in the C15 Acert engines' exhaust - "clogged injector heads, sensor malfunctions, something wrong with fuel line - for whatever reason, it doesn't regenerate as it's supposed to," Warren said of the system's diesel particulate filter. "The ECM will then tell the engine to shut down."

"When you're in business to haul over the road and this happens, it's very difficult to continue" because trucks and drivers are stranded until repairs are made. And the breakdowns happen repeatedly because dealer technicians can't properly fix them. "They're scared," he said of truck owners, "because you don't know where it will happen... It's not if, but when" the malfunctions and breakdowns will occur.

Beyond Caterpillar

Caterpillar formally left the North American truck-engine market in late 2009, just before EPA's 2010 regulations took effect. It produced EPA-'07 Acert-model diesels before the deadline and many were installed in Peterbilt, Kenworth and International trucks. Many Cat Acert engines are in service and Cat had promised to back them, but customers have said this hasn't happened.

Cat last year stopped sending representatives to regular meetings of the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. So Cat reps have not been not present to answer complaints made through that group, leading to more disgruntlement.

But all builders' engines have had problems, said Darry Stuart, a consultant and fleet manager and a past general chairman of TMC. Cat has been named in the lawsuit, but he thinks there may be as many or more issues with Cummins diesels, partly because there are more Cummins engines out there.

Builders have had "a ton of problems" with engines produced since emissions regulations were first seriously tightened in late 2002, Stuart said. In general, engines don't run long before major problems begin, and customers can't understand why. Builders pay for repairs until warranties run out, then owners are on their own.

"You ask them (manufacturers), 'What is the B50 life?'" - the point at whick at least half the engines shouls still be running - Stuart said. "They'll say maybe 750,000 miles. So the assumption is you should get at least B50 life without major failures, including turbos, EGR coolers, other parts. And that's not the case.

"When we buy a truck we're paying $20,000 for the motor and probably $10,000 for the emissions system, so now we're paying $30,000 for it and we expect to get at least B50 life out of them," Stuart said of all truck diesels. "And we're not."

However, some complaining truck owners turn out to be guilty of not maintaining the engines properly, he said. They fail to change oil regularly, idle the engines too much, do not perform certain work specific to exhaust-aftertreatment equipment, and in general are either negligent or ignorant of the new diesels' needs.

Many in the industry place ultimate blame for the situation on the federal EPA, which forced increasingly strict exhaust limits on the industry in a short time frame, while dismissing warnings that the equipment devised to meet the limits couldn't be properly tested and would be very expensive. Truck owners' experiences have proven at least some of the warnings to be true.