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Are they responsible for our head gasket?

Before my mate left home for an extended business trip recently, her Subaru wagon (’99 150k) was running fine, no overheating, no problems. She had had a mechanic change the oil and generally check it out at home before she left, and he recommended doing the timing belt soon, but he found no other issues.

She had the timing belt done in the area where she was working. She picked it up before leaving for home, drove it about 20 miles when it overheated. Had it towed back to the shop.

The mechanic found that there was air in the cooling system. So they bled the system and took the car for a test drive around town, and told her that the car was running fine.

She asked them to do a compression test, but they said it wasn’t necessary. She then asked them to drive it some more, at highway speeds, to make sure it was okay. They did, and called her and said that when they drove it again, it did overheat. The temperature gauge went way up, and then back down. This happened a second time during the test drive. Back at the shop, the mechanic found exhaust gas in the cooling system which they said indicates that the head gasket is blown.

Since their last call with her, I’ve talked to two other mechanics, who have worked on our vehicles in our area. Both said it was too much to believe that it was coincidence that our head gasket blew within 20 miles of the shop—especially after they left air in the cooling system and caused the car to overheat. The consensus was that it was this overheating episode, caused by the shop, that caused the head gasket to blow.

They also said that if the head gasket was bad before the timing belt change, it would have shown up in the condition of the coolant before they did the belt. One of them said that he would never even have done the timing belt if that was the case. Instead, he would’ve called us to say that the car needed the head gasket before the timing belt got done.

Given all that, I think they owe us the work. They insist that it was a coincidence BUT are willing to split the labor cost with us…which I think is contradictory. I’m trying to decide what to say to the shop owner next. Any informed perspectives would be deeply appreciated!

If it was any other car you may have a case, but look around this Forum… Those cars are KNOWN for headgaskets… It is possible that they caused the issue, it is also possible they just brought it to light. This is a tough one to be honest… You also have to keep in mind the car has 150,000 miles on it, and again these are known to have weak headgaskets.

Head gasket failure is a chronic weakness of the Subaru engine…At 13 years and 150K miles, THIS repair is on you. Nothing in the belt replacement procedure has any effect on the head gaskets…

A timing belt job will have nothing to do with air pockets and overheating unless a water pump replacement was also involved in this repair.

Knowing the fine details could help in forming a half-definitive opinion but 3rd party complaints can often lead to some of those lost in translation problems.

Given Subaru’s shaky head gasket history and if the engine was seriously overheated during the first episode it’s entirely possible for a head gasket to be fine one minute and failed the next.

Water pump was also done.

“She had the timing belt done in the area where she was working. She picked it up before leaving for home, drove it about 20 miles when it overheated. Had it towed back to the shop.”

You didn’t mention the water pump in your original post…So when you factor THAT in, that the cooling system was not properly filled with coolant, then anything is possible…If it REALLY overheated the first time, boiling over, clouds of steam, few aluminum engines survive that…

They are responsible for opening the cooling system by replacing the pump. It is a serious mistake that they made. A peace offering of a small portion of the cost would be nice. No question though they own the head work and the gaskets at least. It could be a “recycled engine” depending. Their insurance will pickup some of the cost but your engine likely had not a lot of life left. It may have next to none now, depending on bearing damage. At least it was well worn to begin with so tolerances(after wear) may have been large enough to prevent major damage.

I should have mentioned the water pump in the original post; I just thought it was typical to do that at the same time as the timing belt. Thanks for the responses. Keep 'em coming if you like.

I still need to formulate my final response to this guy. I told him I expected him to cover the costs of the head gasket job. He says he’ll drop the price of the repair from $1900 to $1300 (we split the labor costs).

I know Subarus go through head gaskets. But that doesn’t mean our Subaru needed one now. I drove a '91 until it had 227k on it. No head gasket job, and the engine still ran strong when I sold it.

Now we pay $1300 to get a car out of hock that might have little engine life left because they screwed up the cooling system?

How much experience do you have with this mechanic? Was her recommended by others if you haven’t used him before?

I agree that they probably caused the head gasket failure due to the air in the cooling system, but proving it and actually getting them to make the repair at no charge will likely involve an attorney and then I’m not sure whether you’d get anything done or not. From now on I’d use shops/mechanics I know and trust when at all possible. If they don’t want to do things to your satisfaction have the car towed to another garage for repair.

David,
It sucks. Period. Depending you could get a used engine or the value of the car out of the insurance settlement. At this mileage it is a toss up. If you want the car press in a nice way. If the money toward a new car(used ok) is better then this car then deal. They own the damage. The question is what is the damage worth? A suit in small claims would get you the bill you paid plus the value of the car, a little bit for filing time and trouble and maybe a rental car if you used one. Damage is limited to your value and costs plus a small offset for filing time and trouble.

I’m going to go mostly against the flow and say no. Its a Subaru. If you own a '99 Subaru with 150K, and you end up with bad head gasket, and you try to blame it on someone else…well…that’s just not right. I’m surprised the Subaru owner’s manual doesn’t now have a recommended change interval for the head gasket.

If it does happen to be the case that the cooling system wasn’t properly filled then the driver is still partly on the hook if it was driven to complete overheating - complete with steam & boiling & all of that. Then you factor in the '99 and 150K - IMHO, trying to get the shop to pay for it is trying to shovel off your troubles on somebody else.

Based on the age, mileage, and Subaru’s tendency to cough up head gaskets I have a hard time faulting the shop due to the unknowns.
If the coolant was left a little low (say a quart or so) after the water pump change that should not have been enough to cause a problem.

Just food for thought here, but maybe one of the head gaskets decided to give up the ghost and this led to loss of coolant from overheating. This could explain why the shop found the coolant level low and why it may not have even been low after the pump swap.

It could be that a thermostat or cooling fan went stupid and caused the overheating. Combined with the age, mileage, and so on that could have pushed an iffy head gasket over the edge.

I’d say that if they left some air in the cooling system and it ‘slightly’ overheated, that perhaps this caused the problem. But any engine but a Subaru engine would probably be tolerant of this, fragile head gaskets and poor head design being their Achilles’ Heel. So while I think they could have caused this, I also think your head gasket was ready to go, and this just made it happen sooner instead of maybe a couple months down the road, perhaps while you were on a nice long trip somewhere in the summer heat.

I’d take their generous offer to eat some of the labor cost and just file it under the “s–t happens” category in life.

In thirty-some years of paying repair bills, this is the first one I’ve ever contested. And if I hadn’t been told by more than one professional mechanic (who stood no chance of doing the work himself) that this shop likely caused the problem, I wouldn’t have contested this one.

That said, I’m leaning toward oblivion’s point of view, just above.

Thanks for all the responses. I appreciate everyone’s perspectives.

Why do people wait until just before a trip to have major maintenance done? No wonder so many people are always worried that their car will give them trouble when they are out on the road. Maintenance should be done well before the trip and at home, not away. That way if there are any issues, they will show up before hitting the road.

I have witnessed this a number of times. A coworker will refill a cooling system, let the vehicle idle for 20 minutes then park the vehicle for customer pick-up. If the cooling system is low when the engine cools it will draw 2 quarts of coolant from the reservoir, but only if it is allowed to cool. If a costomer picks up thier vehicle while still hot and drives down the highway @ 70 MPH the vehicle may come back on a hook.

I always road test the vehicle after a cooling system repair then allow the engine to cool and check the coolant level. The elevated engine speed and a wide open thermostat will normally force all the air out of the engine.

Your shop doesn’t want to obsorb the cost of a head gasket failure on a vehicle that is know for these problems. They are also in denial if they think this is just bad luck.

There are two parties involved here, someone drove the vehicle twenty miles before noticing there was a cooling system problem. Although it is the responsibility of the shop to return the vehicle in proper condition it is important for the customer to pay attention to the instrument cluster/gauges after a repair.