A Winnipeg couple is crying foul over nearly $2,600 in damages their landlord charged them after their car caught fire in their apartment’s parking lot. The couple says they aren’t at fault for the blaze – and that it’s not the first time a car has gone up in flames after plugging in block heaters on the company’s property.
On Nov. 30, Erica Bueckert and George Komzak decided to go for dinner after a long work day, so Bueckert parked her car and plugged it in to an electrical outlet outside the building. When they got back home in Komzak's vehicle about 40 minutes later, Bueckert said she couldn’t believe what she saw.
"As we were rounding the building, I could see firefighters," she said. "I was like, ‘Oh my god, is that my car?’"
Her Ford Focus ST was engulfed in flames, the once bright-yellow front end now a charred black, flames still shooting out from the hood.
As they waited outside, Bueckert said they called their landlord, Rancho Realty, to report the incident. It didn’t take long for Rancho Realty to bill them $83.06 for assisting with the fire — though Bueckert said she isn’t sure why.
"No one showed up," she said. "We were outside from pretty much 10 o’clock until midnight."
Rancho Realty did not respond to requests for comment from the Free Press on Friday.
In January, another car caught fire while plugged in to the building’s electrical system, Bueckert said — two spots away from where her car had gone up in flames.
"It was like déja vu," she said.
That was when the company sent out a notice that tenants "will be held liable for all costs associated with any incident resulting in the damage of Rancho Realty property" — a much different agreement than the one Bueckert’s fiancé signed in 2017, which makes no mention of any tenant liability for damages.
Soon after, Bueckert’s car was written off by MPI, which concluded the fire was not her fault.
"Coverage was provided… on the basis that the fire originated from the (block) heater and that the fire was not initiated by (Bueckert)," an email from Bueckert's adjuster read.
Bueckert said the adjuster also told them theirs was one of five vehicles that had caught fire in similar situations on Rancho Realty-owned properties in a span of 35 days.
"(The adjuster said) they assumed it was because of the electrical, not because of the vehicles," said Bueckert.
MPI spokesperson Brian Smiley declined to comment on the situation, citing confidentiality requirements.
"We have several fire-dedicated investigators who look at all vehicles that go up in flames," said Smiley. "Many times, we find that those fires are the result of a faulty block heater."
In May, Bueckert got three more invoices from Rancho Realty: one for electrical repairs in the amount of $1,672.97; one for new parking posts in the amount of $687.75; and a reissued invoice for "assist(ing) fire department with tenant car fire," this time in the amount of $124.58.
"We don’t feel like we should be paying these bills," said Bueckert. "There’s literally nothing that I did that caused (the fire)."
The couple went to their tenants’ insurer, which said there was nothing they could do because it was an auto-related incident. They also went to the Residential Tenancies Branch, which said they would have to wait until Rancho Realty takes them to small claims court or tries to deduct the money from their security deposit.
Now, in the middle of planning their July 2020 wedding, Bueckert said she and Komzak hope this won’t be yet another expense they have to cover.
"It’s just been a headache," she said. "We’re just kind of wanting to get it over and dealt with."
Updated on Friday, July 19, 2019 at 7:04 PM CDT: Adds photo