Payless denies car rental damage appeal, but did this driver give in too soon?

Payless wanted Shannon Lewis to pay up after it claimed she damaged one of its rental cars in Las Vegas.

She says she didn’t do it, and asked me to mediate her case. It didn’t quite work out the way either of us wanted it to, but on the bright side, there are plenty of lessons for your next car rental.

Lewis is a corporate travel agent with 15 years of experience, but this was only her second time renting a car. “I declined the insurance because we have our own insurance through USAA,” she says.

She continues:

We left the rental counter after signing all the necessary documents and went to the car rental pick-up area that is located on the bottom level of the parking garage.

We walked up to the attendant and she advised us that the car had already been inspected and was set to go, handed me a pamphlet and said have a good day. We walked to our car (the last one left on the lot – no choice) and loaded our bags into the car and drove off.

So she didn’t inspect the car herself, and she had no photos to prove that the car was undamaged. That’s too bad.

You know what happens next, don’t you? When she returned the car, a representative pointed out a few small dings on the vehicle that she hadn’t noticed.

The gentleman asked me if I saw the pings (little dents above the rear wheel – less than what hail damage would make and maybe two or three of them), and I answered no, so he pointed them out to me, and unless you looked at a
certain angle with a certain light, they weren’t even noticeable to the eye.

I advised him that at no point in time was the car damaged in our possession, since it sat most of the time. He said that I had to sign a document stating that there is damage to the car and that I could not leave without signing the document.

She spoke with a manager on location, who told her “not to worry” about the dings.

She should have worried.

“I then receive a letter from Subrogation Management Team Ltd that states that I am liable for damages to the car and that there was an estimate in progress,” she says.

Total damage? $1,994, including a $50 “administrative” fee and a $150 “loss of use” fee.

When I reviewed her case, I thought it didn’t pass the sniff test. For starters, Subrogation Management has a reputation for being very aggressive when it comes to damage claims. So does Payless. But beyond that, verbal assurances given to Lewis and the intense, post-rental inspection just didn’t look right.

I contacted Payless, and it agreed to look into the claim. Two months passed with no response, and in the meantime, Subrogation had threatened her with a collection agency (a standard tactic).

Finally, Subrogation Management contacted USAA and a claim was processed. She will be liable for a $500 deductible, she says.

I’m disappointed in this outcome, not just because I hate to lose, but because I think this case should have gone Lewis’ way. In reviewing the documentation provided by Payless, I did not see a repair estimate or a photo documenting the damage — just a bill.

What’s more, $1,994 seems like a lot to pay for a few dings.

I have some firsthand experience with threatening, litigious readers.

I think the tactics rarely work. Sure, some consumers will roll over and play dead when you take a matter to collections or declare, “I’ll sue.” But others will fight, and our legal system allows for a matter like this to drag on for years. Subrogation would have to weigh the cost benefit of pursuing this further.

And $1,994 isn’t worth taking to any court.

Personally, I think Lewis should have kept fighting, and I would have gladly helped. But USAA has already paid Payless.

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 Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • JenniferFinger

    Another example of why getting everything in writing, taking photos, and not accepting “don’t worry about it” and other verbal assurances are always good ideas when it comes to car rentals-you’re always left “worrying about it.” Otherwise you get stuck paying through the nose for tiny dings that are probably normal wear and tear. So I’m sympathetic to Lewis in that $500 is an expensive lesson to learn, but I think she did need to learn it-especially since she’s a travel agent herself. Even if she’s only rented cars for herself twice, I would think that she would act in her own behalf just as she would advise a client. That she wouldn’t doesn’t make sense to me unless she was expecting the car rental agency to know that she was a travel agent and kid-glove her.

  • BillCCC

    I voted yes because this is the classic case of the consumer not having much of a defence. She accepted the car without an inspection and then signed a form stating there was damage to the car on return.

    The car rental cannot hold her against her will if she did not want to sign the document. I would have had them call the police instead.

  • john4868

    I struggle with this one … On one hand, how many times do we have to go over the “you need to look at your rental car before you leave the lot” talk especially with someone in the travel business. On the opposite, I have a real issue with Payless making up a number they don’t have to justify and with her insurance company not making them justify it either.

  • Charles

    I always get frustrated with these articles because they never include a statement about secondary insurance. Did she use a credit card to rent this car? If so, in all likelihood the credit card company will pay that $500 deductible. Why don’t you ask this question? I often wonder how many people pay these charges without ever realizing they have insurance from their credit card and I wonder how many people don’t use something in their wallet to pay that would have saved them that $500 at no cost to themselves. I think the reason credit card companies give this away for free is because they realize most of their customers will forget they even have it.

    Oh, and as for “I did not see a repair estimate or a photo documenting the damage — just a bill.”, there is NO WAY that USAA paid that claim without a repair estimate. They may not have sent it to Ms. Lewis, but I’m sure USAA got it. Insurance companies are just as eager to avoid parting with money as rental car companies are eager to soak it up.

  • Len Oxman

    This is a poorly worded question. Should the claim have been paid? Probably not. Should USAA have paid the claim? Yes. The insured did not argue well on her own behalf that the claim was frivolous but still submitted it to USAA.

  • Edmond Valencia

    She is a travel agent and doesn’t keep up on the doings of her own industry?

  • IGoEverywhere

    I have been following your column for about a year+ and this is probably the 10th time that this situation has come up. A travel agent getting burned? Wow! Training, customer advise and then getting stuck! I don’t care how perfect the vehicle looks, with today’s technology video, pictures, outside, inside, great or lousy; you have to have proof! I save my information for 6 months. The rental car companies will stick anything to the first easy to scare customer renting the car next. I would have signed nothing, what are they going to do, bring out the wet noodles? I would have immediately called my insurance company for advice. And not to get the “not to worry” line verbally, but not in writing; wow again.

  • strizis

    I’d love to know how she is aware of Chris website, but not be aware of checking out her rental car before leaving the lot. Also, how can she 100% sure the damage didn’t occur while in her possession. Damage can happen to cars very easily, while sitting in a parking lot. On the flip side,Payless, or any rental company, should have to show pictures of the damage, and proof of repair, before being able to collect.

  • technomage1

    She didn’t submit the claim – Subrogation Management submitted it. The article doesn’t say if USAA or Subrogation Management gave her any notice of the submittal. She may not have been given a chance to fight it.

  • Raven_Altosk

    She was told she “couldn’t leave”?

    Funny, I would’ve just gotten my stuff and walked away without signing. What are they going to do? Kidnap me? If they had tried to stop me, I would’ve called the cops saying I was being detained against my will. I bet that would’ve made their customers in line to collect cars feel all warm and fuzzy about this shadyass business.

  • emanon256

    What disturbs me most is that they were able to prove a claim to her insurance company without any estimates or photographs.
    Yes, she didn’t look in advance, but the cost with no estimate and no proof really bothers me.

  • Richee

    Paylee should change it’s name to pay more.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’d see your point about the photographs if the OP was denying there was any damage. But, she freely admits to seeing the dents. As for the estimate, it’s not clear what USAA was provided. Insurance companies don’t pay a penny more than they have to, so clearly they got some sort of paperwork that satisfied them.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “I advised him that at no point in time was the car damaged in our possession, since it sat most of the time.”

    Thus, admitting that the car could well have been damaged while in her possession as it sat unattended. Fair or not, the system is set up where she needs to prove it wasn’t damaged on her watch and the old “I wasn’t even with the car most of the time” excuse doesn’t do that.

  • SoBeSparky

    USAA must pay.

    This is simply a paperwork issue. She signed the form the car was damaged. USAA looks at form, sees her consent to statement car was damaged, and makes out the check. What is there to argue about?

    As a corporate travel agent, she of all people should have known you never sign anything you do not agree with. Period. What would she advise one of her corporate clients?

  • LeeAnneClark

    This is the part I’m curious about. How did they manage to wrangle money out of her insurance company if there wasn’t a complete damage estimate?

  • emanon256

    Good point. She really should have looked first to prevent any of this. If I were her and on the hook for the deductible, I would still want to see more.

  • LeeAnneClark

    LOL I am the same way. Sorry but nobody is going to tell me I “can’t leave”. What are they going to do, restrain me? BAM – lawsuit! Unlawful detention is a crime in this country.

  • bc

    Sigh, it’s stories like these that make travelling less fun. I don’t want to have to worry that my car rental company is going to screw me over at every turn or the airline or hotel is going to slap me with a last minute unavoidable fee (Resort fees, I’m looking at you!).
    The moral of this story is…DOCUMENT BEFORE YOU RENT! (that’s kinda catchy!) Almost everyone has a smartphone with them, use it! I take photos and videos of a car BEFORE I rent and when I return now just for this type of thing. It’s saved my but at least once.
    I will also say, of all these reports, it’s usually the cheapo car rental places that try these “fix-it” scams the most. I’ve heard far fewer stories about companies like Hertz (who I generally use) which generally is not the cheapest option. Maybe there’s a correlation?

  • LeeAnneClark

    I have no doubt that this is yet another rental-car damage claim scam. It’s becoming a joke. And I’m also just as irritated as everyone else that she didn’t do the basics to protect herself, given that she is not exactly a Kettle – she should have known better. Still, she should have been able to get out of it the usual way: deny causing it, demand proof that it happened on her watch, demand a history of any claims to prior renters (which will usually scare them since they are usually using these dents as a profit center), if that doesn’t work go to Christopher and have him do his Corleone magic, and POOF they cave.

    But here’s the part I don’t get…Christopher, maybe you can clarify. How did Payless know that her personal insurance company was USAA? How were they able to submit a claim to them, unless the OP gave them her insurance information? When I rent a car, I just decline the insurance…I don’t give them my insurance information. And I wouldn’t, unless I knew that I was guilty of the damage.

    Maybe they made her provide it on that document they forced her to sign by unlawfully detaining her? If that’s the case, then I just can’t summon up a lot of sympathy for her. Giving out her insurance info pretty much guaranteed they were going to submit a claim! And the fact that they paid the claim also raises questions…they must have been able to submit an appropriate estimate, or USAA wouldn’t have paid. While that certainly doesn’t mean that she had anything to do with the damage, it does mean that there was, in fact, damage.

    This one troubles me. I have zero doubt that this was just another routine damage claim scam, and I would bet good money that a demand for records would show that they’ve claimed the same damage to others. But Ms Lewis certainly doesn’t seem to have been a very good advocate for herself. First and foremost, of course, we have the pictures when you rent the car – these days they are just as necessary as locking your car in a bad neighborhood.

    Second we have the unlawful detainment – I’m sorry but NOBODY has a right to tell you that you can’t LEAVE! What would they do? Tie her up? Break her legs? If anyone said that to me, I would immediately LEAVE – and if they tried to detain me, call the cops and have them arrested.

    Third, we have the fact that she (apparently) gave them her insurance information, which pretty much guaranteed they were going to make a claim.

    Well, it’s all said and done now. Lessons for her, lessons for us all. And Payless is, I’m sure, laughing all the way to the bank.

  • cjr001

    More than $2,000 for “a few dings”? The OP and USAA should be suing for fraud.

  • Miami510

    In life one should learn from experience… and when it comes to bad experiences it’s best to learn from the experience of others. All of us now learn another lesson from Ms Lewis’ experience.
    Take-a-way: 1. Photograph the car when you receive it and have any
    damage noted on the agreement
    2. Photograph again after rental
    3. Stay away from agencies like Payless

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m imagining a rap song: Doc-u-MENT before you RENT!

  • emanon256

    I sort of had that happen once. I posted it a while ago on here. I rented at Enterprise and the car looked perfect. The next day in the parking lot I saw a scrape on the side. I thought it got hit in the lot. I fortunately had insurance through my then corporate credit card with no deductible. When I turned the car in I told them about it and gave the the paperwork my credit card company faxed me. They demanded I provide my insurance info and pay $500 on the spot. I told them I already reported it to my credit card, and my credit card company will be covering it. They said I could not leave until I paid $500 and gave them my personal insurance and that they don’t take credit card insurance. I repeated my stance, and they repeated theres. I then said I am leaving and they said they will call the police and have me arrested, I told them to go ahead and I left. I was not arrested.
    When the credit card insurance adjuster called me because they never received a claim, I followed up with the car lot and spoke to the manager. He apologized and told me that the damage actually occurred on a prior rental and I was not responsible. He said it was one of those scrapes that you can’t see while the car is wet. I never heard back after that.
    I wonder how many people paid the $500 on the spot for that same car.

  • emanon256

    Whats so bad about my post that I am getting all these down votes?

  • Grant Ritchie

    Kettle? As in Ma and Pa? Careful, girl; you’re dating yourself. :-)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Must be Red Sox fans. Missed final score last night – who won? Betcha that’s where the down votes are coming from. I’d start using the baby as my picture – you’d get “UP votes” just because of cuteness. Or maybe use a funny cat picture. I dunno. I save my down votes for trolls.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    +1. Thank you for saving me a few keystrokes.

  • emanon256

    I didn’t even think about that. I bet you are right! We one 14 – 2. Not that it matter as the Oriels lost, but its good to keep up the momentum.
    Good call!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you believe the threat to call the police is an empty one, as it is in this case, you could ask them to repeat it while you are filming them on your smart phone. They’ll quickly back down. Note. Don’t do this at the airport or on an airplane

  • emanon256

    I couldn’t resist. Its an old picture of me, but I love this one.

  • dourdan

    i have rented cars several times from several companies and here is the game they all play:
    rental agent: will you buy our full coverage insurance?
    customer: no, I’m too smart for that! I have my own insurance.
    rental agent: ok, in that case your car is ready, we already checked it before you got here.

    then on the return.
    customer: here is the car.
    rental agent: ok, time for a full 30 minute inspection, before you can leave.

    every single time. after getting stuck with insane fees for damage that I could not prove i didn’t do, i decided to always get their insurance. because it’s either pay them 400 dollars now or 1,000 when they find a tiny scrape.

  • LeeAnneClark

    LOL yes, that’s exactly where it’s from!

    It’s actually more of an indication that I’m a reader of FlyerTalk than my age. (Although it’s true I’m no spring chicken!) “Kettle” is a rather derisive term used frequently on that forum to refer to infrequent travelers who don’t understand how things work, meant to convey the image of a couple of overall-wearing hicks wandering around the airport in a daze.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    See! Someone down-voted you right away. I got a down vote, too for replying in support of you. Me, I’ve been a “Loyal Royal” since the days of George Brett. I even let a Cubs fan into traffic in front of me yesterday, since we’re fellow perennial underdogs. Some people just take their baseball rivalries waaaay too seriously. Funny new picture, though!

  • Christopher Elliott

    I can’t stand Disqus 2012. I wish there were a way to disable the downvoting/upvoting.

  • emanon256

    I agree. BTW, I up voted you :)

  • LeeAnneClark

    Or you could do what the rest of us do: take photos of the car with your phone before you leave the lot, including any and all “tiny scrapes”, dents, door dings, blemishes in the paint, or pits in the windshield. Then when they attempt to scam you later, ask them to show you the damage, then whip out your phone and show them the photo you took of that scrape BEFORE YOU LEFT THE LOT, proving right in their scammy faces that they are criminals attempting to rip you off.

    I did that at an Avis in Auckland once, and the look on the manager’s face was priceless!

    By buying their overpriced insurance, you are just feeding the scam machine, helping them to profit off their crime. Don’t do it!

  • flutiefan

    i had a rental reservation from one of those less-than-stellar cheapo rental car companies a few years ago. when i got there to pick up the car, they demanded my proof of insurance. i said it was in my own car, on the other side of the country! they denied me a rental, and that every agency requires it. um, no they don’t. i ended up getting a great deal over at Dollar (my favorite agency out of LAX), and guess what… i didn’t have to show my insurance card. go figure.
    but yes, some of these U-Rent-It places do ask to see your insurance.

  • flutiefan

    as someone who has never been in this situation, i really wouldn’t know what to do. do you call your credit card company right away, while you’re still at the agency? or do you call your insurance company first? can someone tell me the correct steps if i ever find myself in this nightmare? thanks!

  • y_p_w

    I’m not sure such threats are without some ability to back them up. I’ve heard of cases where a group got dinged with a mandatory service fee at a restaurant but refused to pay that portion because the service was practically nonexistent. The manager called the cops and had them “arrested for theft”. Here’s one case:

    This one didn’t stick though.

  • fshaff

    Just curious….not sure if they are still in business or not, but a long time ago I used to rent from “Rent-a-Wreck” out of the San Fran area. Their cars already had significant dents and dings when you picked them up. I never really inspected the car nor have I ever had any claims from them. What’s a few more dings on a car that already is covered with them? They couldn’t tell if it was new or old. Maybe we should all get our rentals from them or someone like them to avoid all these hassles. BTW, I now rent almost all the time from Hertz or Avis, take pictures, write up all the dings, etc., and never had a claim come back to me. I decline all insurance(s) they offer, as well.

  • EdB

    Big difference between these two cases. In the one you mention, the “mandatory” charge was listed in the menu and they had the option to leave before the purchase. In the OP case, the demand is being made after the fact.

    I had a situation where a merchant was threatening me with the cops if I didn’t pay a fee that was never agreed on. I whipped out my cellphone and said, “Here, let me call them for you.” The guys tune changed really fast.

  • EdB

    What is there to argue about? How about the exact amount of the cost for repairs. Even with that signed form, it only indicates she admits responsibility. The rental place is still going to have to provide the repair costs to the insurance company before they will pay.

  • Joe Farrell

    Why not? So long as you are not in a security line pointing your camera at the screens you are completely legal according to the TSA. Every police office wants to be the one arresting people for doing something legal and then be responsible for costing the city tens of thousands of dollars. That always looks good on the record.

    In an aircraft a crew member can simply tell you to stop filming. Once they do, you must. But you are not required to give them or delete what you filmed up the point they tell you to stop. Just remember once you pass security you may no longer technically be in publicly accessible area and different rules can and do apply.

  • Jeanne_in_NE


  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I know it’s hard and goes against human nature, but try to not look at the votes, just the comments…

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Chris, I think this is an idea for your next Youtube video…

  • y_p_w

    Still in business, but no airport locations.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Those are two different scenarios. The restaurant case is a case of potentially receiving goods and services without the intent to pay. That is larceny and is a criminal act. Its colloquially known as dine and dash.

    Refusing to pay for damages is a purely civil matter. Had the dinner broken a glass. The manager couldn’t force them to pay for it on the spot.

  • Guest

    As someone who works in the rental car business at an extremely high volume location, I find that most customers have the mentality of “I didn’t see it happen, and it didn’t happen while I was driving, so there is ZERO possibility it happened while I had the car.”

    People, this is not new information. Are their shady rental agents out there who are dishonest? Absolutely. However, I am getting tired of people labeling all rental agents as dishonest snakes. The fact of the matter is, the customer did not do a proper per rental inspection. This is the fault of the customer, not the rental company, and discredits her claims that it could not have happened while she was driving.

    If you decline CDW, you are agreeing to pay for ANY AND ALL DAMAGE on the car that was not previously on the vehicle when you return the vehicle. We know the renter did not do a pre rental walk around, so any claims of hers that the damage was pre existing are completely baseless.

    BTW, some of the tips on this blog work great for the rental car companies as well. I now know to immediately take pictures of any damaged vehicles upon return, and send them to my work email for a time/date stamp. Cheers :)

  • Guest

    How can a customer who fully admits to not doing a full walk around beforehand claim the damage was pre existing? She is making a statement to which she can provide no backing whatsoever.

    Also, this may be hard for the OP to believe, but cars can be damaged while parked. Therefore, her statement of “at no point was the car damaged in our possession since it sat most of the time” is totally irrelevant.

    It’s funny how some regular posters on here believe that any attempt to hold renters contractually responsible for damage done to a rental car is a scam…

  • Guest

    I agreed with you up to the point where you said Payless had to show proof of repair. If You damage my car, you have to pay the cost of repair, but I’m under no obligation to actually fix the vehicle.

    That being said, I don’t know how they can argue for loss of use is the car never left the lot.

  • Nathan Witt

    If a renter damages a car, they should pay. But there should be some burden of proof on the agency that *I* did the damage. I recently rented from Hertz, and I snapped a few pictures of the car before I left, like I always do. When I returned the car, the attendant claimed that I had caused a dent in the door. I pulled up the pictures on my phone, which clearly showed the dent, and we left it at that. I truly do not believe that the attendant was trying to scam me – she saw damage and did what she was supposed to do. But if I hadn’t taken my pictures, Hertz would have pursued me for damage I didn’t cause. And the general attitude that I should have to protect myself, rather than that the agency should implement procedures to accurately identify the source of the damage, isn’t right.