This is how to fight an unfair car rental damage charge — and win

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By Christopher Elliott

Unfair car rental damages are common in travel. Too common.

Not long after Harmanjit Dhami returned his rental to National Car Rental in Denver, the company surprised him with a $3,000 damage charge.

The reason? National said he’d driven his silver Dodge Charger through a hailstorm and had to pay for dings on the roof and hood.

Nonsense, says Dhami.

“I was not in any area with hail storms,” he says. “Chris, I hope you can help me.”

Unfair car rental damage charges are as common as, well, hailstorms in Colorado on a late summer day. And frankly, car rental companies are tired of your excuses. Once they see damage on a returned vehicle, they send it to their claims department or to an outside company that specializes in processing car rental claims, and you have to pay.

Or do you? Actually, there’s a way to fight an unfair car rental damage claim — and win. But car rental companies don’t want you to know about it because if they lose a claim, they have to cover the damages themselves.

But that’s never stopped me from talking.(*) 

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Let’s find out:

  • Who’s responsible for hail damage to a rental car?
  • Can a rental car company charge for hail damage without proof?
  • How do you dispute a car rental hail damage claim?
  • What are consumer rights in a car rental hail damage dispute?

* Note: This guide is intended for drivers who have not damaged their rental car. If you use the information in here to squirm out of a legitimate claim, the consumer advocacy gods will find you!

But this question and its improbable resolution also raise an even bigger question. You’ll want to stick with me until the end to answer it.

Dhami's Dodge Charger during his rental.
Dhami’s Dodge Charger during his rental.

“If the trunk is open, and if you stand from this angle, you can see it” 

In July, Dhami rented a late-model Dodge Charger from National at Denver International Airport. Dhami arrived at the rental location at 10 p.m., and said he had a “limited opportunity” to inspect the vehicle.

“I briefly examined the vehicle to see if there was any obvious damage,” he says.

He found nothing wrong with it.

“During my car rental duration, I made every effort to park the car in a well-lit area and park in a garage if possible,” he says.

But when he returned the car, a National representative told him the car had “minor” hail damage.

“He asked where I stayed,” Dhami recalls. “I told him we were in Firestone.”

Dhami asked to see the damage — and here’s where things get interesting.

“He said that if the trunk is open, and if you stand from this angle, you can see it,” says Dhami. “And there is some hail damage on the roof as well, and you can see it if you stand here.”

The Enterprise representative seemed unconcerned.

“He said it was not a big deal,” says Dhami.

But it was a big deal.

The "damaged" hood of Dhami's car after his return.
The “damaged” hood of Dhami’s car after his return.

An inspection — and then he was “shocked” by a bill

The National employee called a manager who examined the car.

“He started to pepper me with questions,” Dhami recalls. “Where else did I stay? What’s my car insurance?”

Then he said National would determine if he was liable based on weather reports from the area he had visited.

“I told him I’m confident no hail damage occurred during the period I rented the vehicle,” he said.

When Dhami got home, he checked the weather reports along with the location from his phone. It showed that he wasn’t within a 15-mile radius of a hailstorm during his entire visit.

Case closed? Not exactly.

A few weeks later, Dhami received a $3,000 bill from National. 

“I was shocked,” he says. 

He called the manager in Denver who said National relies on one source, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, to determine if one of its vehicles was in a hailstorm. And if the site says you were in a hailstorm, National will send you a bill.

“The allegations of damage to the vehicle are inaccurate and unjust,” he told me. “This is not ethical behavior. I also do not believe it is ethical on my part to pay for damage when I was not even in custody of the vehicle when the damage occurred.”

But will National drop the charges when confronted with the truth?

Who’s responsible for hail damage to a rental car?

Car rental customers are responsible for all damage to a vehicle that happens during their rental period, regardless of who is at fault.

As I reviewed the back-and-forth between National and Dhami, I was surprised by the thread that suggested otherwise. 

Did National really tell him that he would avoid responsibility for damage to the vehicle if he could prove he wasn’t near a hailstorm?

It’s possible. But knowing what I do about the car rental business, it’s unlikely National promised him he’d be off the hook if he could prove he didn’t drive anywhere near a storm.

The bottom line is: When you rent a car, you are responsible for all damage to the vehicle. It doesn’t matter what an employee or manager suggests or says — generally, those are the rules.

But Dhami’s biggest error wasn’t believing the manager, or misinterpreting what the manager said. He failed to take “before” pictures of the rental, which would have established that the damage was pre-existing. If he had taken pictures of the vehicle at the beginning and end of this rental, National would have dropped the claim by now. (A reader faces collection agency threat over Hertz rental scratches.)

Hang on — can a car rental company just send you a bill and expect you to pay? Actually, the answer may surprise you.

Check out my tips on how to avoid an unfair car rental damage claim.

Can a rental car company charge for hail damage without proof?

Technically, a car rental company does not have to show you any proof of damage or proof of repairs. (Often, they send customers insufficient proof or none at all.) 

Car rental companies generally have a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to damage. Unless you can show images or a video that proves you returned the car in the same condition in which you received it, they will charge you for repairs.

It gets worse. Car rental companies are not used to being second-guessed when it comes to repair costs. So if, for example, you damage a windshield and the replacement cost is $400, but the car rental company charges you $600, it doesn’t matter. You still have to pay.

How do they communicate their firm position? For Dhami, it was an email sent to him by National: “We have contacted the rental location and based upon our investigation, we must continue to hold you contractually responsible for this loss in accordance to the terms and conditions of your rental agreement.”

But there’s a way to fight back against an unfair damage claim.

How do you dispute a car rental hail damage claim?

Just because a car rental company doesn’t give you proof — or gives you inadequate proof — doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it. A rental company should be able to provide you with the following:

  • Clear, time-stamped photos of the damage to your vehicle.
  • Inspection reports of the vehicle showing the license, VIN number and odometer reading, and signed by a manager or supervisor.
  • Repair records detailing a breakdown of each repair conducted and the cost to the rental company.

Fact: Some car rental companies will cave in when you ask for these records. So don’t be afraid to politely request these documents. If they can’t provide them, you have a reason to politely decline the company’s request to pay — or, at the very least, to negotiate a lower payment.

You can also appeal your case to a manager. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of key executives at National on my consumer advocacy website.

One more thing: Make sure your appeals are made in writing and are polite and to the point. Do not threaten or make demands. Use facts and logic to argue your case, as I describe in the Elliott Method.

You do have rights, but not as many as you might think.

What are consumer rights in a car rental hail damage dispute?

Consumers have virtually no protections when it comes to hail damage claims — or any other damage claims, for that matter. Since customers sign a contract that makes them liable for any damage to the vehicle, regardless of what caused it, there is little recourse when a company sends you a bill.

But that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. Regardless of what the contract says, you have certain rights under the law. A business can’t just send you a bill and order you to pay it without furnishing you with proof. And you have the right to take your case to a court for relief. 

(Note: Even if you win, the car rental company may place you on its Do Not Rent list, meaning you will be blacklisted from renting again. That’s why it’s best to resolve the dispute amicably with the rental company instead of going to court or filing a credit card dispute.)

It’s generally accepted — even though it isn’t articulated in any car rental agreement — that the car rental company must show you evidence that you returned your car damaged and that it was repaired before sending you a bill. If it can’t do that, you are well within your rights to appeal your damage claim to a manager or to politely decline to pay.

So back to this case, then. Who was in the wrong? And what is the big question I mentioned before?

Is National Car Rental unfairly charging this customer for hail damage?

Dhami thinks the barely noticeable dings on the roof and hood were pre-existing.

“I have reason to believe the subtle nature of the hail damage was overlooked by one of the Denver rental return employees during a previous rental,” he says. “And now they are looking to put the blame on someone else for their mistake.”

I reviewed the paper trail of correspondence between National and Dhami and could not see any documentation of repairs, only an email promising that the company would furnish a repair invoice once it became available.

That made me wonder if National was getting a little bit ahead of itself. Wouldn’t it be prudent to first repair the vehicle and then send a bill to the customer?

Then I checked back with Dhami. Were there any photos of the car — before, during, or after the rental? Did National send any photos with the claim? I wanted to see them.

And it turns out there were photos. Dhami had taken a photo of pre-existing damage to a side panel on the Dodge. Although there were no photos of the roof and hood of the vehicle, it suggested the vehicle was not in pristine condition when National handed him the keys.

Tip: Never, ever accept a car with pre-existing damage. If there’s damage to one part of the car, there may be more that you don’t see, like the undercarriage

And that’s not the only way to avoid a questionable claim like this.

How do you avoid hail damage in a rental car?

If you’re driving in an area that has frequent hailstorms, monitor the weather forecast closely. If it looks like a hailstorm could form near you, take shelter under a bridge or in a garage and wait out the storm. 

And if you’ve been through a hailstorm in a rental car, but took shelter, take pictures as well. Our advocacy team has heard of car rental companies charging customers who have been driving near a hailstorm, even when their vehicles were unaffected. Don’t take any chances.

And if you’re in a rental car and you’ve experienced a hailstorm, take pictures to document any damage and report it to the car rental company immediately. 

It looks like National found only three small hail dings on the vehicle, and they were difficult to see. Most were the size of a pea. National, which is owned by Enterprise, uses a Damage Evaluator template to determine if it should file a claim. None of the dings would have qualified for a claim if they were using the template.

Will this $3,000 charge for hail damage stick?

Both sides in this dispute made mistakes. Dhami didn’t get adequate photos of the car before renting it. But National also failed to provide adequate documentation for its repair. I felt as if there was enough reason to take this case to National and ask it to review the damage claim. So I did.

A National representative got back to me quickly.

“We have done an in-depth review of the renter’s situation and have agreed to drop the hail claim,” he said. “We are always open to further conversations with customers regarding damage claims if they believe they are not at fault, and if a customer disagrees with a claim, they can contact us for further review.”

That’s good news for Dhami — and for anyone else facing a damage claim. Dhami doesn’t have to pay the $3,000 bill. But National is also willing to discuss damage claims like these with its customers, a welcome departure from its previous position, which was “pay — or else!”

Remember to always take pictures of your rental car before leaving the lot and when you return. Always. No exceptions!

So who has to pay?

Remember the big question I mentioned at the beginning of this story? Well, it is simply this: Who is going to pay for these dings? It’s clear that one of National’s cars got damaged, and most likely by hail. It could not prove Dhami did it, so after reviewing his claim, it tore up his bill. 

Still, there are some industry insiders who might say, “Tough luck — National discovered the damage after his rental. He should pay.” OK. But is it fair that National should have to pay for the damage? Maybe a better question is: Which option is the least fair?

Who should pay for the hail damage to Dhami's Dodge?

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About this story

We receive so many hail damage cases that a guide was necessary and long overdue. And this was one hail of a case, if you’ll pardon the pun. I think it might have gone away if Dhami had simply handed over his auto insurance information to National. But he was certain that he didn’t drive the car through hail and didn’t want to risk having his premiums go up for something he didn’t do. After handling this case, I’m going to be much more careful about renting a car in Colorado in late summer, that’s for sure. This story was researched, written and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott, edited by Andy Smith and his team, and illustrated by Dustin Elliott. The video is a collaboration of Aren and Christopher Elliott. 

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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