I rented a damaged car from Dollar — why should I have to pay?

accidentQuestion: I’m having a problem with Dollar Rent A Car. When I picked up my car at Southwest Florida International Airport, they did not inspect the car with me, but told me to just go “pick one out.”

The car had some minor paint damage on the rear bumper, but a sticker was attached indicating that the damage was previously identified, so I didn’t give it any further thought. Prior to leaving for the airport on my return trip, I walked around the car to make sure that there was no damage to the vehicle. There was none.

When I returned the car to Dollar at the airport, the guy didn’t bother to inspect the car, so I pointed out the sticker and damage on the rear bumper, and he said, “Yeah that’s previous damage.”

More than two weeks later, I received a letter from Dollar asking for $239 for unspecified damages — no pictures, no description of the damage, just a demand letter. I tried to reach them by phone, but their subrogation department is closed over the weekend.

I am furious about the way this was handled by Dollar. The complete absence of inspections with the customer is not good business practice — but then, maybe they’re not interested in good business practice. I’m sure they get a lot of suckers to pay up just to avoid the hassle involved in pursuing the matter. Any suggestions you have would be appreciated. — William Hicks, Carpentersville, Illinois.

Answer: Wow, that’s two Dollar cases in two weeks. Are we going for a record here? This one was mishandled from start to finish.

Let’s start with Dollar. Sending a damaged car back out into the fleet, as you noted and as an employee verified, was an awful idea. Dollar should have fixed the car and then returned it to the lot to be rented again. The sticker was an interesting idea, but stickers have a way of coming unstuck and car rental companies are not the best at keeping repair records, as any reader of this column knows.

Dollar should have also offered the opportunity to inspect the car with an associate, or at the very least allowed you to document the results of your own inspection. Instead, an employee just waved you off with a verbal assurance that everything is fine. But everything was not fine.

But you could have also prevented this. First, why did you select a damaged car? If you’re ever given a vehicle in less than immaculate condition, don’t accept it. Second, you should have taken numerous photos of the vehicle, and carefully documented the damage. That’s pretty easy to do with your cellphone or digital camera.

And finally, you needed to make sure that any pre-existing damage was noted in writing. If for some reason no one is available for an inspection, then at least find a manager and let him or her know about the problem. Don’t leave unless the dent is documented on paper. Verbal assurances are useless, as you now know.

Dollar’s follow-up with you left something to be desired; waiting a few weeks before hitting you with a claim seemed suspicious. Why not ask you to fill out a damage claim when you’re still at the airport? And why not send documentation of the damage and repair, as opposed to just a bill.

I contacted Dollar and it dropped its claim.

Should a car rental company rent a vehicle with pre-existing damage?

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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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  • J. Random Driveby

    Some months ago, I dodged a bullet on something like this.

    It was a rental at Enterprise at the Austin, TX airport. They brought the car out, I started load luggage into the trunk, and I noticed that the rear bumper was crunched. At some point in the past, someone had backed into a post, fairly hard. It was easy to see, if you knew what you were looking at, and if you had good light to look with. If you didn’t happen to look right there in good light, or you didn’t immediately realize what you were looking at, it would have been very easy to miss.

    I pointed it out to their clerk, and waited while he wrote it on their walkaround form.

    I think about this, and I think about the Alamo and Enterprise locations at LAX, where the lights are CRAP, and I wonder how many other bullets I’ve dodged, just by dumb luck.

  • sirwired

    I don’t see any inherent problem with sending a vehicle out with minor body damage, as long as it’s handled properly. Why take a car out of service (and dinging a customer with loss-of-use fees) for something that in no way effects it’s usability as a rental car?

    The stickers actually aren’t a bad idea, as long as the damage noted by the stickers makes it onto the check-out report.

    Now, certainly if a rental company uses this as a money-making operation, THAT’s bad. But that’s another question entirely. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: rental companies should be prohibited from charging you one thin dime after they’ve turned over your final rental receipt.

  • Anthrochick

    My experience with car rental damage is so different than the stories Chris helps mediates that I always wonder if someone else ended up with the issue. I rented a car from Budget for 1500 mile work trip. There was an incident with a very high curb and I ended up scuffing and damaging the plastic near the front wheel. Prior to returning the car I reported it to my company’s insurance and received a claim number. When I returned the car, no one would do a damage check with me even though I reported the damage. They did have me fill out an accident report that included the claim info. They didn’t even bother to give me my copy of the report. I had to go back for it.
    Several weeks later I was contacted by my work insurance asking what ever came of the claim. Budget never came after me for the damage nor, as far as I am aware, did they pursue it with the insurance company.

  • Alan Gore

    Because by handing it the way Dollar did, they can keep the car in service AND ding the previous customer for loss-of-use. This sort of thing seems to be standard procedure for Dollar.

  • Vox_Rationis13

    They’re probably waiting to ding the next person who rents it (and the next person…)

  • jaycee

    Hertz Downtown SEA a few years ago. I had rented a few times there before for extended periods.
    The car assigned to me that time had a serious dent in the back. I went back to the desk to report it. The manager said that, indeed, one of his employee had backed into a pillar in the garage. I had signed for full insurance coverage and he was hoping that I take the car without further ado and let the insurance I had just contracted pay for the damage after returning the car at end of my rental.
    It’d have cost me nothing but I did not want a possible black mark on my name with Hertz for ‘damaging’ their car so I refused and the damage was duly noted on my rental contract.

  • William_Leeper

    Here’s my question to you…if you don’t think that ex post facto charges should be able to be applied, how much do you suggest they charge for damage? Or are they supposed to have a body shop on retainer and tell the customer “wait here for a few hours while we get a price on the repair.” How do you suggest this all work? It seems good until a person actually looks at it, then you will be overcharged, or car rental companies will become extinct.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Hmmm. The “damage” was just shy of $250, which is probably a common deductible. It would be interesting to know if the rental agency knew what the OP’s deductible is. This reeks of scam.

  • Cybrsk8r

    It’s seems to always be either Dollar or Alamo.

  • Cybrsk8r

    You’re probably right. If his company is a high value customer, they might try to nail the next renter rather than risk losing a corporate account. This makes more and more sense the more I think about it.

  • Miami510

    How many times do we readers have to learn the lessons:
    Develop eyes in the back of your head.
    Photograph every concievable defect
    Also bring it to the attention of the representative.
    Mark it on the rental form and have the rep initial it.
    Photograph the car when returning it.
    (What a disgusing way to do business!)

  • braves1

    I had the SAME problem with Enterprise at Palm Beach International airport last March. Got it straightened out but it took a lot of time, effort, and toil that should NOT have been necessary. Will never rent from them again.

  • sirwired

    Sorry… what I meant was that any damage should be noticed before handing over the receipt.

  • William_Leeper

    I understand now. Not necessarily know how much it will cost or anything, but it should be noted, and the customer notified. My apologies for misunderstanding.

  • Joe Farrell

    The effort to collect damage for a car with pre-ex damage is an unfair trade practice. Bring it on.

  • Joe Farrell

    FWIW – I rented a vehicle from Budget at the airport in Redding, CA in May 2012. In the parking lot at the hotel a guy who also rented from Budget in San Francisco backed into me – scuffing and dinging the bumper in the brand new with 400 miles on the odometer car.

    I got his info, took down his contract number, DL, reg, etc and noted that he had full coverage whereas I rely on my personal insurance and credit card coverage when renting cars.

    I filled out a rental damage form – noted that another budget driver had hit me while parked – and no one mentioned anything about it – and here we are 9 months later and I have heard nothing more from anyone about it . . .

    I think it just depends if the person decides to make an issue out of it . . . .

    I had an Avis guy try to come after me for suspension damage after a flat tire – that was an amusing end. I told them that my business policy requires proof of damage with estimates, photographs and copies of the last three and next three rental agreements to provide the vehicle was out of service for a longer period that normal between rentals – funny, never heard back and never heard from him again . . .

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    @Christopher Elliott: Are you taking notes? This is a great proof of damage policy!

  • bodega3

    Interesting to see how close the vote is on the poll. I voted yes, as in places, like Hawaii, getting new cars to rent out everytime a rental comes back damage would be next to impossible for agency and angry renters where they could not pick up a car because of it.

  • JenniferFinger

    Budget, National, Hertz, and Avis all do it too. It seems to be part of the car rental business model. Chris, does it seem like that to you?

  • J

    Contacting Chris when the company is closed for the weekend. That seems rather quick to resort to a consumer advocate.

  • Anthrochick

    It wasn’t a corporate account. Ours is with a different rental agency. Budget was closest to my house so my company let me use them instead.
    It is a pretty good theory though.

  • Chris Johnson

    Is there any car rental company out there that doesn’t pull this type of stunt? Because I’d like to know which one(s) I can count on to not get scammed by and would pay extra (albeit not too much) to avoid this aggravation. Not everyone who rents a car has Chris Elliott advocating for them. Also, is the car rental industry such a low-margin and competitive business that this is the only way they can make any real money?

  • http://www.afmarcom.com/ Angelique

    Here’s what I’ve noticed at Hertz (I always rent there): When I rent from an agency office in town, the agent walks out to the car with me and makes notes. If there’s a scratch or ding, he writes it down on his chart, and we both get a copy. If I rent from the airport, where I go out to the lot myself to find my assigned car, the cars are always in perfect condition. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I think Hertz keeps the “no notation required” cars for their airports so that the airport rental process is faster.

  • SierraRose 49

    I’m sick of renting. Almost all the major rental car companies have tried to pull this scam of charging and re-charging for damage that remains unfixed. For that reason, I’m using a shuttle service to/from hotel followed by public transportation or cab (have to be careful about taxi scammers, too.)

  • calbff

    That’s quite intuitive; although they’d never give you copies of the previous/next rental agreements, the rest are completely reasonable requests and should be automatically included whenever a rental company claims damages.

  • calbff

    I was surprised to see how many “no” votes there were. Maybe I’m wrong but I see no problem at all with renting a car with minor noted damage.

  • ghaff

    In my experience, Enterprise is pretty good about having one of their agents do a walkaround with you and note any damage. I find their general “I’m your best friend” act a bit annoying sometime–I want to rent a car from you, not go out on a date–but they do seem good at noting damage. In general, I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. I’ve never had a notable accident in a rental but I’ve never been dinged for minor bumper scrapes and the like.

  • esonick

    I have rented cars un the past at 3rd world countries, and I never have any issues, why? Because they have a form that outlines the car shape, and an employee takes you to pick up the car, and do a walk around to inspect the car, and take any notes for damages, etc… I don’t understand why in a 1st world country car rentals would not do the same thing, do a walk around at check out, but they will do a walk around when you return the car, not a good practice of doing business… Because they know people are tire, stressed, etc, and will not inspect the car, because all they want to do is get to the hotel and people will get charged for damages to the car, which were there in the first place…