When the “check engine” light comes on in Jonathan Drew’s rental SUV, Budget tells him to keep driving. Then PurCo sends him a bill for damage he didn’t cause. Can our forum advocates persuade PurCo to drop the claim?
Question: I rented an SUV from Budget for a one-day rental. I did not take pictures of the car at the time I received it, but I did walk around the car and there was no apparent damage.
As my wife and I were driving to another city, the check engine light came on so I immediately called the local Budget office. Budget’s agent told me to keep driving to my destination city and pick up another rental. I did as they instructed me.
Then I received a letter from PurCo, which stated that I would be responsible for loss of use damage plus any other damage. I called and explained exactly what happened and thought the issue was finished. I just received another letter from PurCo saying that I was responsible for caked mud inside the engine compartment which caused the “check engine” light to come on.
I did not drive the SUV over muddy ground. The damage was caused by a previous renter. Can you help me get rid of this phony damage claim? — Jonathan Drew, Helena, Mont.
Answer: I’m sorry you received a spurious claim for damage to your rental car. Cases such as yours have become an all-too-common line of revenue for car rental agencies.
Budget’s master rental agreement, which applies to all rentals in the U.S. and Canada and is customized for each state or province, provides that:
[I]f the car is lost or damaged as a direct or indirect result of a violation of paragraph 14, or damaged as a result of an act of nature, you are responsible and you will pay us for all loss of or damage to the car regardless of cause, or who, or what caused it. If the car is damaged, you will pay our estimated repair cost, or if, in our sole discretion, we determine to sell the car in its damaged condition, you will pay the difference between the car’s retail fair market value before it was damaged and the sale proceeds … Where permitted by law, you authorize us to charge you for the actual cost of repair or replacement of lost or damaged items such as glass, mirrors, tires and antenna, as part of your rental charges at the time of return.
So Budget can basically charge you for any repairs it thinks it can attribute to you, including mud in the engine. While it would have been advisable to take photos of the car at the time you received it, you ordinarily should not have been expected to open the hood and photograph the engine.
PurCo is a risk management company that handles “loss prevention” — chasing down and billing car rental agency customers damage and loss claims, genuine and false. It has suggested in its past advertising in trade magazines that car rental companies can turn damage claims into a profit center.
PurCo’s website has the following Q&A about damage claims:
Why am I responsible for damage I did not do?
Based on the risk of damages the rental agency asks the renter to sign a contract which holds them responsible for all loss or damage to the vehicle despite fault. The presumption is that the bailee of the property had a duty to keep the property safe and in the same condition in which they received it.
When the property is returned damaged, the presumption is that the damage occurred while the renter had the property.
The rental contract is not written to place an undue and unfounded burden on the renter, but rather to enforce the common law presumption that the bailee is responsible for all damage to the property in their care.
So neither Budget nor PurCo cares that you didn’t actually cause the mud to get in the engine of your car – just that they think it happened while the car was in your possession.
No, it isn’t fair, and no, it’s not good customer service.
You posted in our forum about your case. Our forum advocates suggested that you follow a course of action listed in a thread in the forum, in which you dispute the claim in writing and request various forms of documentation, including:
- A copy of your original agreement and a copy of the paperwork given to you when you returned the car
- Time-stamped and dated pictures of the damage
- The rental agreements from the five people who rented the car before you and the five that rented if after (this will force them to look at the paperwork for anyone before or after who returned it after you that may have caused the damage)
- A picture of the mileage indicator showing the mileage on the car when the damage was noted. (Compare it to the mileage when you turned the car in)
- A copy of the fleet utilization log
- A copy of the incident report
- A copy of the receipt showing the car was repaired and the cost that was paid for the repair
- A copy of the license plate number on the car to ensure it is the car you rented
Then you reached out to the Budget executives using the company contacts on our website, to ask for assistance. Had you taken photos of the car, you should have included these in your contact with the executives.
You followed these instructions, and PurCo dropped the claim. Congratulations!