Can I Sue a Gas Station for Bad Fuel?
Yes, you can sue a gas station for giving you lousy fuel. You can recover compensation for damage to your vehicle and the rental car you may have needed while it was under repair. If the repairs are minor and no one got hurt, you may be able to handle the case on your own in small claims court.
Rushing to the courthouse needn't be your first step. Gas stations have insurance. They may agree to reimburse you. Another option is to go through your own insurance company. They may cover most of the money you are out (less the deductible). If neither option works for you, you can take the gas station to court.
Bad Gas Can Wreck Your Engine
Suppose you have a job interview, and you stop at a Shell gas station to fill up on your way there. The sun shines, the birds sing — nothing can go wrong. You hop back into your car, and off you go, thinking about who you will meet and how best to sell yourself.
Suddenly, you start hearing a strange knocking in your engine. The check engine light pops on. You make it only a few more blocks before your car dies. You call a tow truck, who takes it to your dealership. Then, you call the interviewer to let them know you won't be able to make it there. Unfortunately, they are not willing to reschedule.
Your mechanic takes a look at your car. It turns out there is water in your fuel system. They must drain your gas tank, replace your spark plugs, and flush the lines. Repairs cost hundreds of dollars.
You did miss your interview, but thankfully, no one got hurt. Still, you are mad at the gas station. And you want to do something about it.
Your Negligence Claim Against the Gas Station
You may have a claim against the gas station for negligence. A lawyer would say that negligence is conduct that falls below the standard set by law for protecting others against an unreasonable risk of harm. Everyone else might simply say that negligence is when you hurt someone carelessly.
To make out a negligence claim, you need to show four things:
- The existence of a legal duty
- A breach of that legal duty
What these terms mean probably isn't unclear, so let's define each in order.
A legal duty of care means you must have a legally recognized relationship with someone for them to sue you for negligence. It does not have to be anything official or in writing. For example, when behind the wheel, you have a legal duty to other vehicles and pedestrians to drive safely. If you run a business, you have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for customers.
A judge decides whether the relationship involves a legal duty. A court looking at our example would likely find that the gas station owes you a legal duty of care.
What does that duty require? Centuries of court-made law say that you must act reasonably prudent in the same or similar circumstances. The fight is over what that means in any given situation. That's for a jury to decide.
In our example, a jury could find that a reasonably prudent gas station owner would regularly check their fuel pumps and tanks to ensure no water can enter customers' cars.
Breach of Duty
The second element is a breach of that legal duty of care. You would have to show that someone failed to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. Put another way, do other gas station owners check their gas pumps to ensure they are working properly?
A jury answers this question. And a jury could decide in our example that a station owner's failure to regularly check gas pumps and tanks for water breached the duty of care that it owes a customer.
The third element is causation. The law requires you to show that someone directly caused reasonably foreseeable harm.
Think about it as links in a chain. There must be links between the breach and the harms you want to sue about. Using our example, you would want to show the link among:
- The failure to regularly check the pumps
- Which resulted in the bad gasoline
- Which resulted in the damage to your car
- Which resulted in your missing your interview and your repair bills
That would be the chain of causation.
The final element is damages. "Damages" refers to money paid to the injured party to compensate them for the harm done.
Two things to know about damages:
- You can only recover for the foreseeable harm that you can prove.
- You can only recover for harms the law recognizes as something you can get paid for
In our example, you should recover for the repair bills and the job you lost. The repair bills are probably foreseeable — you could get reimbursement for those. You would have a harder time proving that a job loss was a foreseeable harm.
What Do You Need To Prove Your Case?
At a minimum, you want to make sure you have the following:
- The credit card receipt for the gas you bought (yes, there is a reason to keep those things)
- Any repair bills (make sure your mechanic notes on your repair bill that bad gas caused your car troubles)
- The bill for any rental car you needed
You will also want to do the following:
- As soon as possible, contact the agency in your state that inspects gas stations (e.g., the department of agriculture weights and measures). It can send an inspector to test the station's gas
- Ask your mechanic to keep a sample of the gas from your car for you in case you need to get it tested down the road
- Let your insurance company know what happened (more on that below)
Before You Take Legal Action, Try to Work it Out
You have your evidence in hand. But you don't need to take legal action just yet.
Try to Work it Out
Give the gas station owner copies (not the originals!) of your gathered materials. Hold on to any gas samples for now.
If you filled up at a franchise (such as BP Amoco, Speedway, etc.), send a second copy to the gas company's corporate legal department. You should get an email or street address from the company's website. Again, hold on to any gas sample.
Ensure you ask them to get back to you by a certain date. A couple of weeks should give them enough time for the station owner's insurance company and corporate to look at your situation. If they agree to reimburse you, going to court is unnecessary.
File a Claim With Your Insurance Company
Another option is to file a claim with your insurance company. You may have coverage under your auto insurance policy. You will be out your deductible, but you may get reimbursed for the bulk of your bills. That might please you.
Perhaps the station owner and the company refuse to reimburse you. Maybe you don't want just to eat your deductible. Legal action is your best option.
Consult a Lawyer
That legal option depends on the extent of the harm you've suffered. You should consult a personal injury attorney if you or anyone else got injured. If your car is toast, but no one got injured, you may consult a consumer protection attorney.
Many lawyers of each type offer a free consultation. You can learn more about your legal rights from a good law firm and get legal advice on whether a court case makes the most sense.
Small Claims Court
If you weren't hurt and your bills are on the small side, you could bring a small claims court case. Small claims courts handle cases that involve damages below a certain amount set by state law. Depending on your location, that amount varies from $2,500 to $25,000.
You can handle a small claims case independently (and some states don't let you have a lawyer in small claims court). If you want to learn more about filing a case in small claims court, visit our page on small claims court.