Did I go all “Incredible Hulk” on my rental car?

Question: I recently rented an SUV from Enterprise in Tenafly, N.J. A manager and I walked around the car before I left the lot. Neither of us saw any damage.

A week later, when I returned the car, a regional manager, who was taller than both myself and the store manager, noticed two outward facing dings in the roof of the car. He even asked if anyone had gotten mad and punched the roof, or carried any cargo that could have caused the damage.

The store manager who had missed the damage on the first inspection had to climb up into the car to get a look at the top, at which point he declared that he never could have missed it.

Enterprise wants us to pay for the damage. They’ve been predictably unsympathetic and seemingly programmed to say, almost word for word, that they were not accusing me of damaging the car, but that it had been damaged while I had it (which, infuriatingly, implies that I purposefully hit it from the inside).

Now a sideswipe, a dent, a broken light — I get it, could have happened when I wasn’t looking, when it was parked, whatever. But dents in the roof of the car? You’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t go all “Incredible Hulk” and start smashing at things indiscriminately.

Luckily, I have insurance through my credit card, so hopefully I won’t be footing the bill, but I’m still livid. Do I have any recourse at all? — Mark Ferguson, Brooklyn, NY

Answer: Enterprise is both right — and wrong. Yes, you are responsible for the car while you rent it, so either you or your insurance company should pay for any damage to the SUV during your rental.

But I don’t believe the manager who claims he could have never missed the roof damage. If your account is accurate, and he had to climb up into the vehicle to see the dent, then it’s far likelier that he missed the damage during the first inspection.

A solution isn’t obvious. I mean, even if you’d photographed the car — which is something I always recommend — you probably would have skipped the roof. I know I would have.

Incidentally, I’ve also heard of a few damage claims resulting from dents to the undercarriage, which is, of course, completely absurd. Who would take pictures of the underside of a rental car? Who would even check it, pre-rental?

In order to make the system fair, a car rental company must photograph every vehicle from every angle both before and after a rental and ask you to sign a form acknowledging the condition of the car.

Car rental companies tell me such a system would be too expensive and time-consuming, but the alternative is even worse. It is the guilty-until-proven-innocent system we currently have — one that favors the car rental company and punishes too many blameless customers. There must be a better way.

It’s too bad Enterprise just repeated the same line, which is basically that you were guilty unless you could prove otherwise. If this ever happens to you again, you can appeal this to someone higher up at Enterprise. Here are some names.

I contacted Enterprise on your behalf. The company dropped its claim.

(Photo: shaun wong/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • typhn

    Yes, by all means they can inspect hidden areas of the car – the renter is after all responsible, but I would like them to clamber on top of and under the car prior to the car being rented out too! Why dont they do that please.

  • http://www.deltapoints.com/ DeltaPoints.com

    With smart phones just video a walk around the rental before you move it and can even do the roof (good idea) it takes less than 1 min! I do that same thing when I park MY car before I fly in case I get back to find something not right I have proof of what condition MY car was in when parked!

  • Elmo Clarity

    Roof, yes.  Undercarriage, *NO*.  Damage to the undercarriage, unless extremely major, is normal wear and tear.  The roads are not like an aircraft carrier where the crew does a FOD walk picking up anything that could damage the planes.  There is loose objects all over the roads and driving over them will cause some damage.  Places that inspect the undercarriage after and not before rentals are just looking to make a fast buck on the insurance as far as I’m concerned.

  • TonyA_says

    I’m not surprised. Here in the East Coast we have lots of tall oak trees. Around the fall season, and especially if it is windy, the falling acorns can damage your roof. My Prius and Outback have dings all over their roofs. I assume that’s normal wear and tear.

  • BillCCC

    I agree that the roof yes but the undercarriage no. It is incumbent upon the renter to make sure that they do not miss anything even if one of the employees is with them. I am not sure from the story if the renter checked the roof prior to the rental. 

  • Phillip Mendenhall

    You need a third option on the poll Chris:  Only if they inspect it at the time of rental.

  • Phillip Mendenhall

    I don’t think the renter checked it, but it doesn’t sound like the rental manager did either.

  • MarkKelling

    Enterprise, again?  Why is it it seems like they are the only rental car company we ever see complaints about here?  Are they that bad?  Oh, and they always drop the claim as soon as Chris asks about it.  Very suspicious.  Could they maybe be billing multiple customers for the same damage and they are afraid this would show up if the issue was dug into?  Nah, they would never do anything like that.

  • IGoEverywhere

    These car complaints are starting to get a bit tedious. 2-3 a month and they all lead the the same comclusion…..check out the car a-z before you drive off.

  • http://www.pipdigital.com Nancy Dickinson

    It’s remarkable how many of these “claims” are dropped the instant someone like Chris gets involved.  My thinking is, were this a legitimate claim, they wouldn’t drop it at all.

  • jikinn

    Falling acorns and acorns dropped by squirrels! From reading the article, it seems that the dings were as though someone inside the car punched the roof – the dings were protruding from the roof. So things falling on the car couldn’t have caused the damage in this case.

  • TonyA_says

    Yeah, you’re right. I re-read the article. I would think it should be written someone punched the “ceiling” not the roof. So that’s why the dent was outward. I thought someone punched the roof outside. I misread.

    So now we have to take pictures of the INSIDE of the car, too?

  • Cybrsk8r

    I couldn’t vote for either option.  I can see checking the roof.  At least that can be seen.  But the undercarriage?  No way.  An agency gopher could have damaged the undercarriage taking it thru the car wash, and then you get dinged.  What are we going to have to do? Bring our own creeper, so we can inspect and photograph the underside and exhaust system before we drive it off the lot?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BJF5ZSELUNU6HQJWYESV6AQTWA Linda Jordan

    Because of all the recent horror stories due to car rentals, I photograph all angles of the car before leaving the lot.  I’ve had agents say, “oh don’t worry about that scratch we know it was there before you rented.”  I once turned in a marked up diagram on the receipt of the car before leaving and was told it was too detailed.  I made them walk around the car with me and showed them all the dings and dents and then they believed me. This was in an airport garage that was dimly lit.  You just can’t be too careful anymore and Enterprise seems to be the biggest culprit with damage claims. Seriously, who climbs on top of a SUV to look?  They had to know the dent was there to begin with.

  • BlondieDC

    Notice how the issues one hears about are almost always with Enterprise?  Seriously, don’t rent from them.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Dream on.  No rental company will ever do as thorough a job upon pick-up as they do during drop-off.  That would eliminate a major revenue source for them.

  • jimkahnw

    Wow, I’m in the EXACT same dispute with Enterprise. They claim I damaged the car while it was in my possession, noting a hair-line crack in the vicinity of scuffs that were “too small” to mark on the pre-rental inspection. Never mind that the inspection took place at night, when I picked up the car. No way the agent or I could have seen the crack.

    I called my insurance agent and told him the situation. His reaction: we’re being scammed! The insurance company appraiser must be in on it, too. She was suspicious of me and clearly NOT on my side. If I contest the claim with Enterprise and lose (not unlikely), insurance won’t have to pay. If I invoke my coverage, I get hit with a rate hike. Yikes!

    Worse, the insurance agent said one of his co-workers had the same experience. Which leads me to think that this particular car has never been repaired and rented over and over, enabling Enterprise to collect thousands on unmade repairs.

    How do we stop these fraudsters?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yes.  It’s that bad.  My colleagues and I have ruled out using Enterprise entirely, because too many have been hit with this scam.  Enterprise is well-known to be particularly scammy.  Of course they’ve shot themselves in the foot through these unethical practices, because whole groups of frequent renters now avoid them like the plague!

  • LeeAnneClark

    Exactly.  It’s a numbers game for them – they know it’s a scam, so the minute someone shines a light on it, they quickly drop it and scurry under the floorboards like cockroaches.  But there are enough poor schmucks out there who don’t know they have the option of NOT paying, to continue to make this a lucrative practice.  It’s up to us to protect ourselves.

  • http://www.pipdigital.com Nancy Dickinson

    I try to share as many of these articles as I can and I now have my husband taking pics of his rental cars when he travels for work.  

    He is particularly vulnerable due to his working for a major defense contractor, his using a company credit card and the location that does his travel expenses pretty much rubber stamps everything.

  • Pegtoo

    Too bad we can’t go back and mark the ding “PAID FOR” with permanent marking…so the next person doesn’t get charged for the same ding.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thank you for running another rental car horror story.  This same issue showed up a couple of weeks ago in “Hints from Heloise”, and another story, prompted by the first, showed up in Tuesday’s paper.  Heloise is now asking her readers to send her stories on this topic.

    Between Chris Elliott and Heloise, maybe more people will get educated on this topic.  The “How to Rent a Car” series was excellent.  I can’t say enough times how grateful I am to the readers/commenters on this blog (and of course Chris Elliott) for sharing good tips and advice, especially on rental cars.  It sure helped with my last car rental!

  • Joe Farrell

    Well, I would actually want to hear the question the rental company asked answered – what did you carry in the vehicle and could it have damaged the roof?

    Why did you rent an SUV?  Did you need to carry something?  If so – what?  Even a bicycle handlebar could push through the headliner and ding the roof.  If you carried ANYTHING in it – from tennis racquets to golf clubs to 2×4’s to lacrosse sticks – were you 100% present with the vehicle and watching 100% of the time when anything anything or anyone carrying ANYTHING car getting in and out of the vehicle?

    If the answer to that is no, then it is 100% possible that someone dinged it with whatever they or you wer carrying, saw no damage to the headliner and assumed there was no damage to anything since, after all, no one gets up on the roof to look. . . .

    Just saying . . .  they may not be wrong.   It one thing to have visible dent on a side or F/R panel of a vehicle where you would notice if it were damaged, but something like this?  Well . . . .

    Then the question I have for Enterprise is why did they check the roof? 

  • Cybrsk8r

    I have no doubt this happens.  Rental agencies trying to collect from multiple customers for the same ding.  But how do you know, in your particular instance, that it’s the exact same car?

  • jimkahnw

    The MO is the same, the cars are different. I rented mine in CT; the car has NY plates.

  • http://www.talestoldfromtheroad.com/ Dick Jordan

    Chris, your suggestion that rental car companies photograph cars before and after renting them is intriguing, but probably not practical since the turn-around time can be pretty brief on some occasions, plus customers anxious to get to the terminal to board their flights are not going to want to stand around waiting for the car they just returned to be checked out for damage.

    Putting the onus on the customer to take their own photos before they drive off in the car isn’t always feasible, either.  If you pick up a car parked in a poorly-lit garage (this has happened to me) where the cars are parked so close together that you can hardly get the door open to get into the vehicle, there is no way to visually inspect the car for damage, let alone take a photo of it.  And if it’s pouring down rain, no one is going to want to walk around the vehicle to shoot pictures of it.

    And, of course, having to stand on the “threshold” of the car’s door to be able to peer across the roof, or don a mechanic’s coveralls and carry a flashlight to inspect the undercarriage is well beyond what might be an otherwise reasonable demand on the renter to look for preexisting damage to the car.

    A more workable approach might be to require by law that rental car companies in the U.S. accept proof of automobile insurance or coverage under a credit card provided by the renter at the time the vehicle is picked up, and that the recourse against the driver’s insurer or credit card company be the only avenue that the rental car company has.  (The credit card should cover the normal deductible under the driver’s auto policy).

    Another solution would be the one applicable in some countries:  Insurance is mandatory, all renters pay it.  I’ve been happy to be “forced” to pay those costs when I’ve rented a car in Europe in order to avoid having to deal “close up and personal” or via long-distance if a damage issue arises.

    So, Chris, now that you and I have successfully resolved this consumer travel issue, can we make quick work of all outstanding gripes against airlines and hotels, and just have fun on the road and forget about blogging about this stuff?

  • Franklin Shaffer

    I had to use a rental from Enterprise due to my vehicle was in the shop getting repaired from a school bus that backed into it while parked.  I inspected the vehicle and even took pictures of some slight scratches/dents, which I had noted on the contract before I signed it.  About 10 miles down the road, I noticed that the RF tire pressure was at 41psi, while the other 3 tires were at 32ps.   I pulled over and let some air out to even things out.  The car was parked in my carport overnight before our trip the next morning.  I got about 15 miles down the road when I decided to check the tire pressure.  The RF was now showing 27psi while the others were still at 32psi.  A few more miles down the road when the low tire pressure light came on.  I drove to the nearest station and put air in the tire.  I continued on my way and within 2 hrs driving, the tire lost air.  I decided to go directly to an Enterprise agency to see if I could get the tire fixed, assuming it had a slow leak.  They authorized a repair and sent me to the nearest tire shop.  The tech could not find anything wrong with the tire at first, until he pulled the wheel off the axle.  He then found the problem — the rim was bent right at the tire bead, causing the leak.  I took it back to the agency and informed them of the problem.  The first question they asked me was, “Did you hit something?”  I can honestly say that I did not hit anything, that it apparently was this way when I got it, hence the pressure difference when I picked it up.  Someone, either the previous renter or Enterprise, overfilled the tire to “hide” the leak.  Anyway, we were offered another vehicle at that point, which we accepted, as they could not replace the wheel at that time.  Prior to exchanging vehicles, I did in fact crawl under the front of the car and took a picture of the damaged wheel.  Upon our return from vacation, I attached a copy of the photo to a letter to the agency we rented the vehicle from, explaining everything that happened.  They said that they would not charge me for the damage.  I am only hoping they stand by that statement.   I always take pictures of rentals, but never in my life have I ever taken one from under a vehicle nor on top of one.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    I don’t understand how being “forced” to buy insurance betters your position.  If insurance makes you feel better, then just buy it.  Why force it on others?

  • jimkahnw

    Update. Happy ending for my case. Enterprise sent me an invoice for the damage they alleged was caused during my rental. Only $441.00; too low for an insurance claim. Because it was a rental arranged by the repair shop, no credit card company could be involved. I called their Damage Recovery Unit and left two messages. A day later, my call was returned by some one in their regional office. I explained the situation, mentioning that it was night when I picked up the car and the damage in question went unnoticed. I learned from a previous call that the agent was an intern and mentioned that as well. I was calm and courteous and spoke without recrimination.

    A few days later, I received an email saying the case had been dropped. Thank you, very much.

    This incident left a bad taste for me. I will never use Enterprise and I will tell everyone I know about this incident.