A battle over a valuable hot rod – involving one of the biggest names in the Wichita car world – is being waged in federal court.
A Georgia man entrusted his hot rod, which he valued at more than half a million dollars, to Devlin Rod & Customs on East Douglas so it could do some mechanical magic. But a Devlin employee wrecked the car, and now there’s a lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed by Michael LaZear seeks damages of at least $700,000 and names as defendants Devlin Rod & Customs LLC, owner Timothy Devlin and Devlin employee Ryan James. LaZear said the business promised that no one would drive the car without his permission and that the shop had millions of dollars in insurance if anything happened to the car.
Devlin Rod & Customs denies those claims and maintains that LaZear knew the shop would have to test-drive the car. The business says that LaZear owes it $18,984.51 for work on the car, a court document says.
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The conflict originated almost two years ago. On Oct. 20, 2015, James rapidly accelerated the 1956 Ford Fairlane to “peel out, burnout, ‘fish tail,’ ‘hot rod,’ or otherwise show off” as he was driving the car from another Wichita business where the car had been worked on, the lawsuit complaint says.
The hot rod went out of control, rolled several times, crashed into a ditch and ended up “a total loss,” the lawsuit says.
James pleaded guilty to recklessly driving LaZear’s Fairlane, and a Sedgwick County District Court judge ordered that his license be restricted for 90 days beginning June 1, 2016, records show.
Car owner argument
Devlin Rod & Customs was not supposed to let anyone drive the car without LaZear’s permission, and the business assured that the car would be transported only by trailer, the lawsuit says. The car had never been driven when it was left in Devlin Rod & Customs’ “exclusive possession,” it says.
Although Devlin Rod & Customs had said it had “millions of dollars of insurance” to cover any possible loss of the Fairlane, after the crash “Devlin advised LaZear that Devlin Rod & Customs lacked sufficient insurance to cover the loss of the Fairlane, contrary to Devlin’s promises and representations,” the lawsuit says. The custom car had a “replacement cost of between $500,000 and $700,000.” The lawsuit does not say whether LaZear had insurance to cover the loss.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges negligence and deceptive practices involving a consumer transaction.
In a court document answering the lawsuit complaint, the Devlin shop denied that “actions were taken for the purpose of ‘showing off,’” and denied “that it … was an ‘attempt to burnout.’”
LaZear told the business “do what you have to do” to drive and test the car, the business responded in the court document.
LaZear “knew specifically that the vehicle had to be driven to be tested,” the shop said.
The business denied that it was deceptive and argued that there was no consumer transaction.
And in a counterclaim, the shop contended that LaZear owes it $18,984.51 for work on the hot rod.
The case is set for mediation in September. Depositions of Devlin and James are scheduled for next month.
LaZear’s attorney, Brett Randol, said Thursday he couldn’t comment.
Devlin said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit; his attorney couldn’t be reached.
The Devlin hot rod shop name is part of the name of The Starbird-Devlin Rod & Customs Charities Car Show. It’s one of the most prominent car shows in the Midwest, held each January at Century II.
The lawsuit describes the 1956 Fairlane owned by LaZear as “a custom-built, one-off 1956 Fairlane ‘Pro Touring’ 2-Door Sedan.”
“Through years of work, labor and significant expense, LaZear transformed the shell of the Fairlane into the custom, one-of-a-kind show car of his dreams.”
The powerful engine was described as a “Ford ‘Boss Nine’ 540 cubic inch V8.” The frame, chassis and roll bar were fabricated by hand, the body shaped by hand and the interior “custom restored.”
Date-stamped photographs filed with the lawsuit and taken minutes before the hot rod crashed show the glossy-black car with a custom paint job – a yellow-and-orange-flame design flaring back from the gleaming grill. Part of the massive engine protrudes from a cutout designed into the hood. The floor-mounted gear shift knob was a black 8 ball.
The Devlin shop installed all the gauges, including the odometer, the lawsuit says.
“LaZear gave Devlin strict instructions that the Fairlane only be transported by trailer, and that it not be driven under any circumstances without LaZear’s prior approval,” it says. “Devlin assured, promised …”
On or before Oct. 20, 2015, Devlin told James or another employee to drive the car from the shop to a race-car business on South Greenwich – a 9-mile trip, the lawsuit says. Work was done. On the morning of Oct. 20, James was told to drive the Fairlane back to the Devlin shop.
As James left the driveway at the South Greenwich business, James “stepped on the gas and rapidly accelerated the Fairlane, immediately losing control,” the lawsuit says.
When the hot rod crashed, the odometer showed 27 miles.