Five-year feud over test-drive crash Ferrari

FAST CAR: The classic Ferrari was damaged in a crash on Auckland’s North Shore.
FAST CAR: The classic Ferrari was damaged in a crash on Auckland’s North Shore.

The insurance company called it a joyride in a classic Ferrari, but the mechanic - a disqualified driver - insisted it was a routine brake test.

Two courts now agree with the mechanic over an incident that ended with the luxury car smashed into parked vehicles on Auckland's North Shore and a protracted five-year legal battle over insurance.

The car, a red 1972 Ferrari Daytona - a similar model to one Don Johnson drove in Miami Vice - was being restored by North Shore mechanics Steward Motorsports European.

Owner John Steward had told his staff no-one was to drive the car but the mechanic - an experienced floor manager who has since been dismissed - did just that on December 12, 2008. The Ferrari's brakes failed at the intersection and crashed into a parked car.

"Eighteen months of hard work went into it. I came back and threw up," Steward said.

The Ferrari's owner, musical instrument importer Roger Smith, said he couldn't believe it when he received the call from Steward. "I almost thought it was a joke."

The real trouble began when Steward tried to claim the repair costs, estimated at $68,000 plus GST, on his public liability insurance with QBE.

The High Court decision in Steward's favour said: "A QBE investigator, Mr McKay, did not think the damage to the Ferrari arose from the service or repair by Steward, but rather by [the mechanic] driving the Ferrari on a jaunt of his own without the permission or authority of Steward."

QBE went further and alleged Steward had committed fraud, alleging the car's brakes had not been worked on as described and contended that Steward had tampered with the brake fluid reservoir after the fact to support his story.

The insurance company tried to settle for $70,000 the day before the trial but Steward refused as he wanted to rebut the allegation.

A five-day hearing in the District Court came down squarely on Steward's side. The judge found there was "considerable evidence" there had been work done on the brakes on the day of the accident and QBE "by a wide margin, failed to establish its allegations".

The insurance company's appeal to the High Court was unsuccessful though a minor adjustment was made to interest calculations. Justice Raynor Asher ordered QBE pay $97,125 in costs and damages. Steward had received notice that QBE, which did not comment, was going to appeal again.

Smith said his Ferrari was now at a repairer in east Auckland and was being "chipped away at" as funds came to hand.

He had persisted with the car as the values internationally seemed to be "drifting upwards". A similar car was sold in Europe recently for 274,000 Euro ($451,000).

Sunday Star Times