By Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean
Last May, a Knoxville woman picked up a 10-foot U-Haul truck and packed it with everything she owned. She was planning a move to Nashville, where the 31-year-old had landed a job as a school teacher.
Before driving the truck away, she informed the rental company's employees that the "check engine light" was on. The employees, she says now, told her not to fret about it.
According to a lawsuit she filed recently in Davidson County Circuit Court, the company should have taken her concerns more seriously.
The woman, whose name is Katharine Hepburn, was just 40 miles outside of Knoxville when she smelled something burning and noticed thick black smoke rising from the truck's hood.
She pulled over to the side of Interstate-40, looked under the truck and noticed a "lake of fluid" on the pavement, she said in the lawsuit. It appeared as if it came from the engine.
Moments later, the fluid ignited and flames engulfed the engine, according to the lawsuit. As she rushed away from the truck, it morphed into a "giant fireball." The fire was so massive, according to the suit, that the interstate had to be blocked off as emergency responders arrived.
Hepburn narrowly escaped injury, according to the suit. Meanwhile, she witnessed "the intense fire ravage and destroy her life," the suit says.
Attorney Seth McInteer, who is representing Hepburn, said the fire ruined everything she owned, including her passport, Social Security card, her entire wardrobe and loads of personal keepsakes.
McInteer, who describes the incident as being a "life-altering traumatic event" for his client, said the grief that resulted from the fire made Hepburn so emotionally distressed that she lost her new Nashville job.
According to the suit, the fire also severely burned Hepburn's Toyota Camry, which the U-Haul was towing.
After the fire, U-Haul sent Hepburn two checks totaling $15,000, which the company hoped would help her put her life back together, according to U-Haul vice president Stuart Shoen.
To his puzzlement, she never cashed the checks. U-Haul would have even paid her more, though she has never called them back, he said.
"We should have given her another truck," Shoen said. "Our people had indications that the truck was safe to drive. Obviously those were errors."
Because the company, based in Phoenix, maintains a fleet of some 100,000 trucks, unusual accidents are almost unavoidable, according to Shoen.
"On occasion, some things happen, and it's very hard to understand why they happen," he said. "And some of them can be quite bizarre. What's important to U-Haul is that when they happen, we treat people like human beings and we try to resolve it."
Hepburn is suing U-Haul for negligence, breach of contract and for violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, among other claims.
The suit, which does not specify damages sought, asks for a jury trial.