Travel Troubleshooter

Mistakes abound in rental car case

Q: I recently rented a vehicle from Dollar Rent A Car in Oakland. After waiting 45 minutes in a very long line that was being serviced by only one employee, I finally stepped up to the counter to initiate and complete the transaction for my vehicle. I declined the loss damage waiver because I had insurance coverage through my car insurance and credit card. I haven’t had an accident in a very long time, nor have I ever had rental-car damage issues.

When I got to the vehicle, it was dark in the parking lot. The body looked fine in the very dim light. I was never asked to inspect the vehicle, and no one ever gave me a car outline to indicate body issues with the vehicle.

I was shocked when I walked out of my sister’s home the next morning. The vehicle I rented was a mess of dings and dents. I contemplated calling Dollar and letting the company know, but I felt as if it was going to pin me for the damage, and wondered if it wasn’t better just to assume that Dollar knew the car was in rough shape and would accept it back the same way I had received it. So I did nothing.

I received a call from Dollar’s claims center a few months after my rental, demanding I pay $412 for the repair. I explained that I rented the vehicle at night and didn’t see any damage, and the next morning I had a panic attack when I realized the vehicle was a total mess of dings, dents and damage.

I was told to pay or be put into collections. The person on the phone cited a portion of the contract that stated that I was responsible for all damage, even if we couldn’t determine the reason for the damage or the time frame in which it occurred.

I strongly suspect that if I did pay, Dollar would do this again to someone else. The car I rented was a mess of slight damage. The pre-existing damage to the vehicle, coupled with not hitting anything while driving, coupled with the nighttime rental, leaves me feeling as though I am not responsible. Do I have any recourse?

Stacey Sproul, Greenville, North Carolina

A: Yes – and no.

Dollar’s contract with you is unambiguous. You’re responsible for any damage discovered after you return the car, even if you’re not responsible, and even if the damage existed before your rental.

Everyone messed up on this one. Let’s start with you. I’m sure you already know this, but always, always take pictures of your car before and after your rental.

Also, never accept a car with any kind of damage, even little dings and dents. If you do, then make sure everything is documented with a pre-rental inspection and all the accompanying paperwork. Specifically, you’ll fill out a diagram of your car where you mark the damage. Make sure an employee, preferably a manager, signs the form.

Most important, you should call the rental company immediately if you see damage to one of its vehicles. The sooner, the better. Returning a car and hoping for the best really isn’t fair to the company or to the next renter, who might get stuck with a damage claim.

Dollar shouldn’t have had a car with damage on the lot. The company should have provided a well-lighted space where it allowed renters to walk around the car and inspect for previous damage. It also took its time with your damage claim, waiting almost three months to contact you. Finally, the amount of the damage claim, $412, was close to the standard $500 deductible on an insurance policy, which made me suspicious.

In a case like this, it’s hard to know what really happened. The best you can do is appeal this to someone higher up at the company and hope for the best. I list the names, numbers and email addresses for Dollar’s customer-service managers on my website (http://elliott.org/company-contacts/dollar-thrifty-automotive-group/).

I contacted Dollar on your behalf. It reviewed your case and agreed to drop its claim.

Email Christopher Elliott at celliott@ngs.org.

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