'Flames start popping': Teen's Toyota RAV4 burst into flames 2 weeks before recall issued

ByJason Knowles KABC logo
Tuesday, March 5, 2024
Suburban teen's RAV4 burst into flames on highway before recall issued
A suburban teen's Toyota RAV4 burst into flames on the Stevenson Expressway 2 weeks before Toyotal recalled 1.8 million cars for a fire risk.

CHICAGO -- An Illinois teenager narrowly escaped his Toyota SUV after it burst into flames on the expressway. His family said they didn't know about an advisory for a potential fire risk before buying the car.

Tyler Kustuch, 18, was driving to a volleyball tournament on Chicago's Stevenson Expressway in October when his car caught fire, starting in the front.

His SUV stalled in the middle of the highway and turned into a fireball.

"It's off and all of a sudden flames start popping off the hood," he recalled.

READ MORE: Toyota recalls more than 1.8 million RAV4 vehicles

Kustuch got out just in time, but his car was destroyed and he lost $1,500 worth of volleyball equipment.

After escaping the car, he video called his mom.

"I'm like, 'Mom, my car just broke down.' I was like, 'My car's on fire,'" he said.

"He's an 18-year-old athletic kid," said his mother Kelly Kustusch. "I'm screaming on the phone on Facetime to get out, get out. He doesn't even have time to grab his bag."

The family purchased the used 2013 Toyota RAV4 just five days before it caught fire. Two weeks after the fire, Toyota issued a recall for fire risks involving the installation of replacement batteries.

Toyota's recall involves more than 1.8 million RAV4 models from 2013 to 2018. Toyota said if a battery in a RAV4 is replaced, the new battery may not fit correctly into the casing if "the hold-down clamp is not tightened correctly."

Toyota said the battery could move and eventually "short circuit, increasing the risk of a fire." The manufacturer says it's "preparing a remedy" to have dealers replace the battery hold down clamp and other parts.

"We went directly then to Toyota and I opened a claim in their product and liability department, and as of now they're just, every time I call they say 'We'll call you back', and then they don't call me back," Kelly Kustuch said.

Even though the recall happened after the fire, what the family didn't know is that almost two years before they bought the car, a "consumer advisory" was issued on RAV4s for the same battery problem.

In that advisory, Toyota warned consumers to "properly inspect and secure" the batteries. The advocacy group, The Center for Auto Safety, said laws put the responsibility on consumers to do their own research on advisories and recalls before buying used.

"Very little, you know, if you're not checking the service bulletins or in any of the announcements that come out. You can find them," said Michael Brooks, the group's executive director. "The burden is definitely on the consumer, and it really pays to do your research on manufacturer service bulletins and communications with dealers, because you can find a lot of things that that might be going on with your car."

You can find information on advisories and recalls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website.

The IInvestigative Team for our sister station WLS found more RAV4 fire related complaints in NHTSA's data base.

The 2013-2018 RAV4s had 43 complaints of fires that appear to be related to the battery recall, including two in Illinois, and 52 additional complaints of fires in the front of the car, though the source of those fires is unclear.

"I want Toyota to do something," said Kelly Kustuch. "I really would like their help."

Toyota didn't respond to Kustuch's case but after WLS became involved, the family received a letter saying their car may have also had an issue with the installation of a new battery and the battery carrier. The letter recapped the recall information and stated, "While we are not able to offer any relief at this time, we are continuing to investigate your claim."

"We have a business, they go to school, they go to work and sports and now we don't have a car," Kelly Kustuch said.

Tyler Kustuch realizes how lucky he was.

"I feel very thankful actually. I think it was the best case scenario for the worst situation because I could've died," he said.

Toyota is not yet offering the family any compensation. The family said its insurance company offered a payout but it's far less than they paid for the vehicle.

The Center for Auto Safety and other consumer advocacy groups have pushed for legislation to make car dealers inform consumers about warnings and recalls, but so far no laws exist.