Can this trip be saved? If “everything is covered” why are you charging me for this flat tire?

One of the most common car rental complaints I get — no, the most common — involves travelers who declined the optional collision-damage waiver and ended up with what what they believe to be a fraudulent claim.

But it rarely goes the other way — which is to say, having the insurance but then not being covered.

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Well, meet Tom Brouillette, who rented a car from Rent-A-Wreck in Albuquerque, NM.

He explains,

When the car was checked out, I was offered a Collision Damage Waiver, which I bought with the understanding that “everything was covered,” in the words of franchise owner Rick Voccio.

While driving one night, the driver’s side tire went flat. I immediately pulled off the road and changed the tire with the spare. The next morning I called the office and spoke with an assistant who refused any coverage for replacing the tire.

It was pointed out by the mechanic on duty (who installed the replacement tire) that the wheel was worn on one edge indicating misalignment. This may or may not have had anything to do with the flat, since the tire is now missing.

I decided I would wait to have further discussion about the tire with the owner.

Let’s get straight to those further discussions, which happened by email. In the first series of emails, Brouillette sends a photo of the tire to the franchise owner in Albuquerque. He writes back and says that it’s the wrong photo of the damaged tire and offers to knock $50 off the $117 repair bill.

Related: In today’s edition of What’s your problem?, I help a reader navigate a scary government maze.

To which Brouillette answered,

When I rented the car from you, you said “everything was covered” if I purchased CDW. On faith that that was true, I paid extra for the coverage.

There is nothing in the contract that excludes tires. I pulled off the road immediately when I could tell the tire was getting flat and installed the spare on the side of the road. It was not a simple puncture, since the steel belts of the tire were damaged as well.

In the photo, it shows uneven wear on the tire. At minimum, the car was out of alignment. Becky asked me to return the damaged tire–and now you cannot find it.

I am not trying to take advantage of you or mislead you. Neither am I asking for any other compensation for time lost or any other expenses.

I run a small business myself, and I know it’s hard work keeping everything running smoothly. I pride myself on customer service: in the rare instance where the customer isn’t satisfied, I refund what they ask. In the long run, it pays off in referrals and returning customers.

I hope you will reconsider your offer and reimburse the $117.

Here’s how Rent-A-Wreck responded:

My offer was made as a matter of customer service and not through an acceptance of liability or modification of the terms and conditions to the contract. As I attempted to communicate on the telephone, I previously contacted the law firm that prepares our contracts to get some additional clarity with respect to tire coverage; however, their response was that it was already covered under the definitions section of the contract.

With regards to my statement of “everything is covered” when purchasing the CDW. It is my thoughts that it is out of context – the caviat [sic] to that statement is “so long as you do not violate the terms of the contract” which I explain to all customers that have questions regarding the CDW and that CDW is not insurance.

I am sorry that your rental was not as smooth and as troublefree as we wish for all of our renters.

You are correct, I do not have the tire, so today I called the Chevron station to where the tires were replaced and spoke with Ernest. He confirmed that the tire failure was caused by a puncture; however, it could not be repaired as the inside sidewall was damaged by driving on the tire once it was flat.

OK, we’re getting nowhere fast on this one.

Let’s go to the fine print. The Albuquerque franchise has a page with some helpful information. Although there are no details on CDW, it does describe the extent of a related loss-damage waiver (LDW) coverage:

LDW protects the renter and additional renter against most damages to the rented vehicle during the entire rental period regardless of fault unless the renter violates any of the terms and conditions of the rental agreement. LDW is a waiver of the renters’ responsibility for vehicle damage, not insurance. LDW does not cover theft. See the brochure at the rental counter for details. Certain restrictions apply.

I imagine the CDW terms are similar, and particularly the “certain restrictions apply” part.

So really, this comes down to a difference in interpretation. The franchisee says punctured tires aren’t covered; the customers believes they should be.

Rent-A-Wreck may be correct. But if a car rental insurance policy doesn’t cover flat tires, then why even bother? It also makes you wonder what kind of other exceptions the business will pull out of its hat when it comes time to make a claim.

Still, in reviewing these letters, I’m not entirely convinced that this franchisee will agree to cover the tire out of his own pocket.

Update (2:45 p.m.): Rent-A-Wreck is refunding the tire “in the interest of goodwill.”