Help needed: missing oil filter and dead 2009 Toyota Matrix

I have a mysterious situation that I need some help solving, any help appreciated as I am at a loss how to proceed.

We purchased a certified pre-owned 2009 Toyota Matrix (S–AWD) in January 2012, with apprx 17K miles (a lease turn in). We purchased a platinum vehicle service plan that covers the car through 2017 or 100K miles. We had the oil changed at 22K miles (May 2012) per the recommended 5K miles at a private garage, not a Toyota dealer. This place had done work on my previous vehicle, a 1994 Corolla, for 6 years and had proven to be reliable and trustworthy, in my opinion.

Last Friday, my husband was driving our daughter to daycare, and 5 miles from our home, the oil and engine lights came on in close succession, and the engine seized and died. We had roadside assistance through the warranty, and it was towed to the nearest Toyota dealer, which is not the one we purchased the vehicle at. They informed me that the car had no oil filter and that therefore nothing that happened to the car was covered under warranty, and said it was clearly the fault of whomever had changed the oil.

Problem: The oil had been changed 4 months, and 4K miles before this happened.
Problem: There is no evidence of an oil leak in our garage, our driveway, the driveway at my work place
Problem: There is no evidence of a catastrophic oil dump along the 5 mile route before the car died
Problem: We cannot find an oil filter along this path either, we have been along it on bicycle looking in the weeds

So the car was in our garage with no oil leaking at 6:45 am, and somehow ended up out of oil, with no filter, in 5 miles, by 7 am. The car had been driving fine–I am the one who usually drives it. I actually drove it 80 miles on Tuesday b.c I had forgotten my laptop at home and had to make the trip to and from work twice (22 miles one way). Then my husband had Weds-Fri off and it was driven 12 miles to and from daycare on Weds and Thurs, and the 5 miles on Friday before it died. No lights were on when I drove it Tuesday, and he says no lights were on before the point that it died.

The guy who changed the oil says the he cannot see how they are at fault, b.c there is no way the car could go so far and so long with an improperly installed filter (it is the screw in style filter, not a cartridge), and that if it were loose, as soon as the seal was broken, oil would spray everywhere. He went and looked at the car at the dealer, and looked at the spot where the car broke down and said there is not enough oil there. There is about enough in spots that would cover an area around a foot in diameter. Toyota says it could have been a slow leak if it was not screwed on right–but where is the evidence for an oil leak? Shouldn’t the oil light have gone off previously if oil was low? The oil change guy says there’s no way there would be a slow leak, the oil would have all dumped out and killed the engine long before the filter somehow fell off. He keeps asking me where is the oil, and where is the filter? Which I would love to have the answers to those questions, but I don’t. He says unless I can produce the filter to show it is the one he put in, and that it is banged up to show it came off the car, he won’t pursue an insurance claim. Toyota says it sounds weird but since he is the last one that touched the car, it’s his fault. Right now we are in the middle and it is looking like we are going to be stuck with the bill for a new engine!

Any help with resolving the questions here, or advice on how to proceed relative to getting either Toyota or the oil change place to take responsibility is appreciated. I feel like we were responsible vehicle owners and purchased and properly maintained a car we thought would be a reliable family vehicle and last 10-15 years, and now we are looking at repairs we can’t afford. Thank you!

It’s difficult to determine what happened here but if the filter blew off then it was likely due to being overtightened at the last oil change or a filter with poorly cut or improper threads was used.
It just took a while for the looming disaster to happen.

As to the oil light, I can just about guarantee you that oil light works. It was simply overlooked at the time. This is a common malady when an engine gets trashed due to lack of oil; the driver always claims the light does not work.

Now, where you’re offbase is in the thinking that the car is unreliable or that the dealer or Toyota Motor Company should foot the bill for a screwup like this. This was did not die a natural death; it was a case of negligent homicide.
My comments may appear to be a bit coarse but I calls it as I sees it.

I might ask one question. How often is the hood raised to check the oil level; or do you rely on the oil level remaining constant from one oil change to the next?

I do not believe we had checked the oil any time in the recent past. I had my Corolla for 14 years and we also have a Rav4, and were perhaps lulled into complacency by having virtually no problems with these vehicles by relying on mechanics and completing maintenance as recommended. I agree is not beyond the realm of possibility that we missed seeing the light and that is one option for what happened–but I can only speak for myself and take my husband at his word that we did not see the light and just choose to ignore it and keep driving. They are supposedly running the computer on it to see if we drove it after the light was on, and I was told that some type of regional supervisor would look at the car this week. At this point I am just trying to gather information that might be helpful to us as we proceed. Obviously if it comes out that we are at fault then we will have to deal with that, I am just trying to understand if there are alternate scenarios that involve anything faulty with the vehicle or oil change that could have caused this.

Very strange…

Is this “oil change place” just an oil change place, ie, Jiffy Lube or some such, or is it a repair business that does more than change oil? The former is not known for highly trained “mechanics”, and not terribly well regarded on this forum.

What explanation does the shop owner have for the missing filter?

I would think that if your filter was slowly working its way off, that you would have a pretty good coating of oil on the underside of the car. That should be quite obvious. If it’s basically clean, then the oil drained out completely when the car was stationary. Did you ever check the oil level, even just once, AFTER the most recent oil change?

Removing just the filter, in itself, would not drain the crankcase…unless the engine was started up. But again, if the car were driven with the filter missing, you’d see a lot of oil on the underside of the car. So, if the underbody of the car is clean, there are only two other explanations: either there was no oil in the engine to begin with, or the engine was burning oil badly, emptying the crankcase via the exhaust system. Neither of these is likely…so then what?

Did anyone check to see if the oil drain plug was missing when it was towed in to the Toyota dealer? Most important, did you or your husband or any other driver of the car ever check the oil level after the last oil change?

I can’t find any plausible explanations here. It’s almost as if someone sabotaged your car the morning when this problem occurred. It must have happened when the car was parked. The prankster pulled your drain plug, emptied the crankcase, removed the filter for good measure, then put the plug back in. But that seems so unlikely that it’s beyond absurd.

As you now understand, it’s important to check your oil periodically by opening the hood, pulling the dipstick, and checking the level. Do it at home, when the engine is cold, not at a gas station when it’s at operating temperature. Keep a few quarts of oil handy at home or in the car - these two steps make solving a low oil condition much easier.

BTW, checking your engine oil is especially important right after you’ve paid for your oil change and before you sit behind the wheel. Do it right there in the parking lot at the quickie lube joint. And don’t be shy about letting anyone notice you doing so, it might help motivate the oil changers to be more vigilant about every aspect of doing oil changes.

Thanks, yes–after this incident we will be sure to check the oil on our vehicles more frequently. I can say with certainty that I did not check the oil since the last change, and will ask my husband. But my guess would be no. I can see this would appear as a glaring oversight to a group that knows a lot about cars. Not much I can say but that it is an oversight by people who are not very car savvy, and with a recent new baby, a lot of things we probably should be doing have fallen off our radar.

The business is an independently owned vehicle and boat repair shop that is well regarded in the town, and I have used before and know several other people who go there with no complaints. The owner took the situation very seriously and values his reputation and said that if he was at fault he would take responsibility for it. But said he had never heard of a filter coming off after 4K miles, that usually it happens within 10-15 miles of the oil change. At his request I texted him photos of our garage, and he drove 40+ miles to the dealership to look at the car, and drove the route I told him we drove on to look for evidence of the filter blowing. After doing all this he says that he can’t find the evidence for it blowing. He said there was oil on the engine but “not enough”. Also that the oil at the site was “not enough”. He spoke to the driver of the tow truck who took our car who told him there was no oil on his flatbed. I was asked by both Toyota and the mechanic if anyone had a grudge against us, so I think they both considered the seemingly unlikely scenario of the car being sabotaged as well. The answer to that would also be no, and the car was parked in the garage before my husband drove it that morning.

One thing I do not understand is how long the car could feasibly run with no filter? The mechanic says virtually no distance at all, which puts our search area for oil and filter to the 5 mile route. Toyota said it could run 500 miles with some minimal amount of oil in the car, which would make it virtually impossible to figure out how or when the filter was lost. Again, there is zero oil under where the car is parked both day and night for the last 4 months since the oil change. Thanks for comments so far, I will check back tomorrow.

With no filter on the car an engine will not run for long; usually a few miles at most before knocking or outright seizure occurs.

If someone had sabotaged the car by removing a filter then there would be a pool of oil at the point where the car was started and a trail of oil leading off from that spot.
The mechanic is correct about virtually no distance at all and the engine can run some distance with a minimal amount of oil but in the case of the latter that would mean with a filter in place.

I’m inclined to think the filter blew off for reasons I stated earlier and I can understand the mechanic’s point of view also after 4k miles. He simply has no way of knowing if someone else has changed the oil and was responsible for this problem.

It’s a tough spot to be in and unless that filter can be found it would be very difficult to prove anything. With the filter in hand the threads could be examined to determine if that was the cause. About all I can suggest is going back to the section of roadway where this happened and slow driving the shoulder (if one exists) with another car while keeping an eye open for an oil smear somewhere. That could put you in the vicinity of the filter. Good luck.

I do not believe what Toyota claims, that the car will run with minimal oil for 500 miles.
The lubricating system on the car is pressurized. It will run 500 miles with a missing oil cap but the likelihood of oil on the top of the engine is great and there is no way you would not notice a smoke coming underneath the hood. Same goes for a missing dipstick. It could run for a while but there will be oil on the engine as well.
Now the oil filter is an integrated part of the system. The oil pressure would force the oil out. Essentially all the oil circulates through the filter. I can not see how the filter gone missing and there is no oil residue around…

The shop owner seems to be taking an appropriate position…willing to take responsibility if there is evidence to show fault, but not just accepting fault when it’s not at all clear what happened. What you report makes him sound reasonable, and unless something changes that, then he’s someone to continue to do business with.

You may never ever discover what really happened. Since you didn’t answer the question about the drain plug when the car was towed, I assume everyone checked and rechecked that and found it still securely in the proper place.

The evidence doesn’t add up, how did all that oil get out of the engine on a five mile non stop drive without making a big mess under the car. Maybe it poured out while the car was stopped in traffic, at a light, or at least moving at a very slow speed where the oil did not blow back on the car. Maybe there’s something about the position of the filter that would have squirted the oil in such a way that it went down, not back. Or was the car low on oil for weeks, even months, and finally dropped below the threshold. It just doesn’t make sense. It probably never will.

You might do well to start looking everywhere for a wrecked Matrix with a good engine that could be swapped into your car. Craigslist is where I’d look, check the section “auto parts” and look for anyone who is “parting out” a similar Matrix, or perhaps the Pontiac Vibe (if those engines are interchangable).

I would not give up on Toyota vehicles, the Toyota dealer who is checking the car, or the shop owner. The only change is, as you understand, to keep an eye on the fluids. BTW, it’s inevitable to let many things slip through the cracks with a new baby dominating your life. That Matrix is only a car. Your child is what really matters. Best wishes for him or her!

I get the part about the oil light. I always see people not seeing the oil light or the water temp until the car starts acting oddly.

But there are parts of the story that don’t add up for me;
Usually, when a filter is working its way loose, it starts leaking oil way before completely falling off. I will actually guess, if this filter was loose and leaking oil, the engine would had been toast before the filter completely fell off. Also the 4k miles is a long time for an improperly installed oil filter to last. I would be curious to know if the oil filter on this Matrix is upside down on the engine or tilted?

Well every so often,I see a filter laying in the road or street(heard of the sabotage deal also) maybe in the future double check the mechanics work and always use a Toyota OEM fiter(there is a difference)-Kevin

if your car has the 1.8l your oil filter is inside a housing or the oil pan and if its the 2.4l it has a spin on type of filter . So my point is if its the cartage the mechacanic (dealer) or spin on then at the last oil change was the gasket from old oil filter left behind or the filter to tightened to factory specs…and everone is assumen that the car has a spin on filter, jusat thinking out load our the treads still on the engine where the filter mounts if its a spin on?

Thanjs, I will ask about the oil drain plug. Part of my feeling of helplessness here is that i don’t even know the questions to ask. I am so clueless i literally had the mechanic text me a picture of tge filter to know what to look for. The Toyota dealership it’s at has been fairly dismissive to me on the phone and just keeps reiterating “well, there was NO oil filter” as if we did it on purpose. I believe there is oil on the underside of the engine, it was just ruled qualitatively ’ not enough ’ by the oil change mechanic. I meant there has been no oil on the ground under the engine to indicate a leak previous to this incident, not that there was no oil on the engine. The 5 mile route is country roads with no stops or traffic, speed limit 55 for first couple of miles, 35 where it broke down. We have driven the route many, many times since friday looking for clues or evidence to help us and not seen any smoking gun oil stain, and examined every piece of trash in the weeds. My husband rode his bike along the route for a better look. No filter so far! Based on all of my conversations with the parties involved is leading me to believe the most likely explanation is a faulty filter that we can’t find, and being faced with an appatently improbable situation occurring of a filter failing after 4k miles. Obviously if we had the oil changed 10 miles before this happened, or had a loose or faulty filter dangling from the car when it died our lives would be a lot easier now!

Today I plan to call the dealership again and find out about the computer and by the end of the week figure out what the repair costs will be and what to do. We might have to take a loss on this car and buy an old used corolla or something, which is ironic and unfortunate bc i traded in my old beloved 1994 corolla purely to have an awd vehicle for a safer ride with the baby in our snowy climate!

Thanks again for comments, anything is helpful. I just don’t want our lack of experience and knowledge to lead us to pay for something that we shouldn’t bc that is what people (who have an interest in not being responsible) tell us.

Sorry for the typos, from my phone on a break from work!

It’s a 2.4 L & screw on filter. For a bit I thought it was a cartridge & could possibly have driven with oil & no filter, but had it confirmed several places it’s a screw on. I will ask about the threads–again, toyota has been weird & won’t let me talk to the technician, only someone who doesn’t seem to be able to answer specific questions.

I think it was a defective filter with bad threads that blew clean off.

If it had only unscrewed there would be a massive leak after just a couple of turns.
The engine would have run out of oil and failed before the filter turned enough to fall off.

What brand of filter?

If the filter is oriented like the one on my 2006 Matrix the bracket faces down and the oil would squirt straight down on the road without spraying oil around the engine compartment.
Did you look for the filter or an oil stain about a mile before where it failed?

You should be able to find a used engine

3 things can go wrong with a screw on type filter at installation. Screwed on too loose, screwed on too tight, or screwed on with the gasket from the old filter stuck on the motor housing.

Screwed on too loose, would allow some oil to leak out, but only if the motor is running. Eventually the vibration of the motor continues to make the filter looser until it falls off. Depending on where the filter is located it might or might not spray oil on the engine or the bottom of the car. Oil is now very lightweight when cold and every more lightweight when hot so it might not leave a thick coating of oil anyway.

Screwed on too tight, damages the treads on the filter. Vibration will eventually cause the damaged threads to break completely and the filter falls off. Pretty much same as above except there might be some evidence in terms of metal shavings in the threads on the motor filter housing.

If the old gasket was not removed, when the filter heats up you have extra rubber material which softens up and then you have the same issues as the screwed too loose scenario above.

Even if you find the filter it might clear up what happened. However we know the filter is gone. That shouldn’t happen so either it was a defective filter, or installed improperly. Either way the shop is responsible IMO. The fact the filter is missing means someone removed it, or it fell off on its own. I don’t think the OP removed it so that means it fell off and something the shop did or didn’t do puts the fault on the oil change shop.

Lots of assumptions but based on little actual knowledge, it’s all people can do.

Perhaps the filter fell off during the tow to the dealership? Looking up to the point of the engine failure may not be enough.

Lack of an oil streak/puddle at some point along the way is highly suspicious. If there are NO drips where you parked it prior to the ill-fated trip, I would tend to suspect the loss of oil was on the trip. Not finding large volumes of oil somewhere along the way would seem to indicate it was already empty OR the dealership lost some of the history. Maybe a tech there took the filter off to inspect and misplaced it? Now, no one is owning up to it or it’s plain ignorance. Probably will never know.

I disagree with the assertion the shop who changed your oil is at fault, at least legally. The warranty on workmanship and initial defective material is way past the time limit at 4000 miles worth of usage. Proving they damaged or improperly installed the filter would be difficult even if you had the old one. And getting the filter mfr to own up to defective material would be equally difficult if not impossible. You’ll spend more money cornering one or more of them than the cost to fix the problem. I’m one of the last people to let something like this go but sometimes you just have to pick the right battles…for the others, just move on…

So far we have not found an oil stain but we will go back again, and look for the filter again, since it seems to be the key to everything. The weather here has been damp, making it harder to spot actual stains from just damp areas. But our best efforts so far when the road was dry were not conclusive.

Update on the computer health check: toyota service mgr stated that it showed no evidence of any failure in the engine or that the filter was lost due to pressure or impact. The records indicate a sudden loss of oil pressure & immediate engine seizure as my husband described happening. I asked if it indicated we had driven the vehicle with a warning light on and he said NO. He said there was oil under the engine but didn’t indicate how much. He said there was zero of the filter remaining and threads are intact. He said in his opinion it looks like someone just screwed it off. Which, based on the events as i previously described them, is impossible. So I’m not left with much to go on still. Field engineer us going to examine the car tomorrow.

I would want an independent mechanic to look at the car since both the dealer and the oil changer have a stake in this mess.

I don’t understand why the dealer does not want to let you talk to the technician who looked at the car when it first came in. They should let you inspect it yourself, if you wanted to. You may loose this battle, but I would be sure to lodge a complaint with Toyota, and take my business elsewhere. I am not saying this dealer did anything wrong, but the techs at dealers do make mistakes too. Mine has driven my car into another car (destroying the door), fried my fuse box (installing a part incorrectly) and not correctly installing a fuel pump, causing a fuel leak!

It’s quite possible for a filter to fail after 4k miles and suddenly let go due to overtightening, poor threads on the filter, or even by double gasketing. The latter means that when the oil was changed the old gasket remained and the new filter was installed on top of it. The threads on the engine will be fine; it’s the threads on the filter that may be wiped out.

A situation like this could be similar to aircraft problems. A plane may make many cycles (takeoffs and landings) before a stressed part just gives up and causes a problem. An example would be an airliner that crashed some years ago and the problem was determined to be a microscopic fracture in a turbine blade that eventually caused a total engine failure.

I wouldn’t read too much into not being able to talk with the mechanic at the dealership. There are legitimate reasons why this is not done. One is to try and make sure that any comments are not turned into one of those Boy Scout campfire stories where it has different meanings to different people. Another is that the mechanic works on flat rate and any time he spends convering with a customer means that he is standing there for free and earning zero dollars.
With the latter, this is also a distraction and disrupts any train of thought on the job he is currently working on.

I’m sure the dealer is not really dismissive of you. The point is that the engine had no filter on it, the engine is wiped out, and pure and simple; it’s not their fault nor is it Toyota’s fault. They may seem dismissive because while they’re conveying this message to you they also have other customers, mechanics, parts people, the sales department, and so on breathing down their neck at the same time. Time is at a premium so that can easily explain any curtness you feel.