Is this a case for us or the prologue to a Stephen King novel?

Have you ever had one of those days when you felt like a character in a novel? Betty Caldwell had one of those recently, but the novel her character was in seemed to have been written by Stephen King.

Caldwell rented a Chevrolet Cruze from Dollar Rent A Car, a subsidiary of The Hertz Corporation, and parked it in the parking lot of a motel where she was staying. What she says happened next could start a great plot line:

I parked the Chevy Cruze in the motel parking lot, which is on a slope. I placed it in “park” and turned it off. I got out and locked it. Then the car spontaneously started to move forward, up the slope. I feared it was going to crash into a window of the motel. It stopped when it came to the asphalt curb on the edge of the lot.

I can’t imagine the confusion I would feel as my car turned itself on and started moving on its own. I would probably look around for cameras, wondering if Candid Camera had been revived. But that wasn’t the end of the car’s possession:

As it was sitting still, I opened the door to make sure it was still in “park” and turned off. Standing beside the car, with the open door behind me, I realized the car had started rolling backward, picking up speed as it moved. With the open door at my back, I could not simply stop or step out of the way, and ran beside the car until I fell and was dragged for 10-15 feet as the car moved into the road. It turned and stopped when it hit the curb.

Caldwell says the motel management called emergency services for her. She suffered abdominal abrasions and bruised ribs, knees, arms and legs. Her down jacket was ruined.

Related story:   Which travel company's CEO is rated highest by its own employees? The answer is ...

After the incident, Caldwell told Dollar that the “electronic ignition system spontaneously started the engine with no intervention on my part,” and asked Dollar to reimburse her for the rental, the amount she paid for the emergency services call and first aid supplies, plus the cost of her down jacket. The total she requested from Dollar was $948.

The company refused to take Caldwell’s word that there was something wrong with the car and wanted proof that the spontaneous movement wasn’t caused by user error or negligence. But Caldwell didn’t have proof.

When emergency personnel were called to the motel the police were not called. Caldwell says this decision was made because there was no damage to the car or to other property, and no reports were made.

But there were injuries, which usually prompts a call to police long before car damage.

Without a police report, Dollar was skeptical about Caldwell’s claim that the car moved on its own, and it offered her another option for confirming her claim. If Caldwell wanted to pay to have the car inspected by mechanics, the company would reimburse her for the cost of the inspection and pay her claim if the mechanics were able to confirm that there was a problem with the car.

Caldwell refused, and contacted us for help. She told us that Dollar “is responsible for providing safe cars and addressing any mechanical problems, and that it was not up to me to assume that responsibility.” She also told us that she has been faced with hard-to-diagnose mechanical problems on her personal car in the past, which also made her reluctant to pay to have the car inspected.

Related story:   Losing it over car rental "loss of use"

We asked Caldwell the same questions that Dollar asked her: whether she had a police report or any other proof that there was something wrong with the vehicle. Obviously, she didn’t. She wanted Dollar — and us — to take her word for it. She said, “I would give more weight to the actual experience and subsequent injury, witnessed by a number of people, than to the chance of finding a definitive mechanical issue on a given day in a small town with limited resources for car repairs.”

The problem with the claim that the incident was “witnessed by a number of people,” is that she never claims that any of these people were with her when she turned off the car and put it into park. I have no doubt they saw the car move, but she provides no proof that the car was the problem.

I did a quick Google search on problems with the Chevrolet Cruze. The majority of complaints date back to 2011 or earlier, but none are related to this problem: the car spontaneously starting on its own. If it had been an ongoing, recurrent problem that had previously been documented, Caldwell might have had a case even though she never had this car inspected and didn’t file a police report.

She could have reached out to the Hertz contacts we list on our site (The Hertz Corporation is Dollar’s parent company), but I don’t think she would have any better luck with the executives, in absence of any verifiable proof.

While we are very sorry for Caldwell’s injuries and hope she feels better soon, we can’t help her with this case, and we’ll have to close this novel without a “happily ever after.”

Related story:   Oops, wrong hitch!

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans.

  • AJPeabody

    This is somewhat like the cases of other car brands with “unintentional acceleration.” They were real but very difficult to reproduce and prove. Here is a one off with no concrete documentation. The OP may be exactly right, unwittingly responsible, or even falsifying, and there is no way to prove any of these. Myself I hypothesize unintentional driver error combined with one or more obscure design defects in the car itself that allowed the car to act this way.

    And no one will ever know for sure.

  • Dan

    Occam’s razor – the simplest hypothesis is usually the correct one.

    Cars don’t spontaneously start the engine, move the transmission lever into drive, move forward until bumping a curb, then go into reverse. I’m sure the Cruze has a remote starter so it’s possible for the engine to start autonomously, but the transmission lever has a mechanical lockout that can’t be moved unless your hand is on it.

    I think OP was stressed/flustered/tired from traveling and simply got out of the car with it running and in gear. I know it’s happened to me in the past.

  • SirWIred

    I can’t blame Dollar for saying that if she wants to move forward with the claim, the burden of proof is on her. (At least some statements from witnesses documenting that this was something other than user error, like “As I moved to help her, I noticed that the transmission lever was in park and the key not in the ignition switch.”)

    I’ve heard of cars not engaging Park properly, and ignition switches have been known to fail-closed (meaning they fail so the engine keeps running), but to have the ignition switch fail, and the transmission not even leave Drive (much less shift into Park), and then have the transmission slide into neutral all by itself for the roll backwards… it does seem far-fetched.

    Pro Tip: Even if you have an automatic transmission, still use the parking brake. It is certainly true that Park can fail, and if you don’t set the p-brake, that isn’t going to end well. There’s a reason you can’t sell a car in this country that does not have one…

  • Mel65

    Well, it’s embarrassing to admit it; however, I have, on two occasions gotten out of my car while it was still running and I was distracted to grab my purse, kids, whatever–and didn’t realize it until I reached for my keys to unlock the door. Additionally, I have on a couple of occasions turned the key off while the car was still in drive in the garage. Both of these are, of course, complete bonehead maneuvers but I own up to it. Sounds like maybe she did both of these things at the same time?

  • LDVinVA

    I think the keyless ignitions are dangerous. I too have gotten out of a still running car. I know of someone who spent 2 hours at a dinner party while their car was running! Give me an old fashioned key, please.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Car rolling backwards picking up speed sounds like the car was in neutral and was following a gust of gravity.
    We will never know what happened but 1) there are no other similar cases, 2) There is no evidence that Dollar failed to maintain the car or was negligent, 3) there is no open service recall and 4) dollar is offering the OP to have the vehicle inspected. So, what exactly else is Dollar to do?

  • Annie M

    While the story is far fetched – the fact that there was absolutely no damage to the car to prove her story would of course lead Dollar not to believe the story. I can’t believe it happened that way itself.

    Hopefully she had health insurance that covered all her medical bills so she isn’t out anything but perhaps her deductible.

  • Jason Hanna

    I agree. I wound up with some green boogers growing in the fusebox of my Colorado.. One of them grew to the point that it supplied power to the starter relay. Want something that will wake you from a dead sleep? The sound of your vehicle starting at 3am in your driveway!

    Of course, because the ignition switch wasn’t on, the computer never commanded ignition, the fuel pump wasn’t running.. So all that happened was the starter engaging. There’s just too much impossibility in this story.

  • Bill

    I was just going to add that! I set the parking brake every time. It’s good practice, and also the law in some States. So, if she had called the police, it is possible they might have cited her (or at least put on the report) that she did not park the vehicle in compliance with the State law.
    Some safety things (seat belts, locked doors, parking brake, etc) are just so easy, I can not understand why a person would not make them habit. Mistakes happen, but lazy is inexcusable.

  • joycexyz

    Proof, proof, proof! No police report and no mechanic’s report. Unfortunately, Caldwell’s word is not good enough.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.