Can this trip be saved? Budget wants $8,381 for a four-day rental

I‘ve seen high car rental bills, but the one Fareeda Elqatto just got from Budget is in a class by itself.

She rented a Chevy Cobalt for four days in Akron, Ohio, and when the car broke down because of an engine problem caused by a filter leak, the car rental company asked her to buy a new engine. Elqatto hadn’t purchased car rental insurance from Budget, so in the company’s view, either she — or her car insurance company — was on the hook.

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But is that fair? Elqatto says Budget is to blame for giving her a car with a mechanical defect.

“They are trying to say the filter leak was my fault, which is completely false,” she says. “I drove that car with much care and trusted that it was given to me in good condition.”

I know next to nothing about cars, which is one reason I’m asking for your help with this case. The driver had the car for only a few days before it stopped working. Can a negligent driver cause a filter leak, and should Elqatto be held responsible for what happened? Or was this a “pre-existing” condition, which Budget should cover?

The other reason I’m writing about this problem is to warn you: Car rental companies are pursuing their customers for every ding, dent, scratch — and blown-up engine. You are guilty until proven innocent. Although this may be an extreme example, you need to protect yourself when you rent a car by carrying reliable primary insurance, otherwise you could be sent a bill for eight grande.

Here are a few details from Elqatto’s rental. After she picked up the car in Akron, she and her mother drove to Canada, where it worked fine for several days.

It was only on the way back to Ohio when the car started having issues.

The temperature and “check engine” light came on at the start of our trip and when it did, I utlized the OnStar service the car had installed to determine what was wrong.

OnStar concluded — after performing a car diagnostics — that there was an issue with the engine and that I should probably get the car to a dealership within a week’s time, but that it should be fine for driving till then.

The “check engine” light and temperature signs ended up going away after a few minutes of idle time so after hearing OnStar’s advice, I started driving again.

No less than 10 minutes of highway driving later, the car broke down.

Elqatto and her mother had the car towed to a Toronto dealership and within four hours, they had a new car and were on their way back to Akron. A week after returning the vehicle, they received an $8,381 repair bill from Budget. According to the company, that’s more than half the base value of the Chevy Cobalt, which, needless to say, is a lot of money.

The claim has pictures of her car and its engine, which both appear to be undamaged, and suspiciously, the damage type says “collision” even though there was none.

She adds,

They kept insisting that I fill out an incident/accident report when I returned the car, but I refused, because that would be admission to guilt. Now they have sent their claim to a collection agency.

I had to hire a lawyer to respond to their letter on my behalf. My insurance will not cover rental mechanical issues.

Please help.

What should I do?

I agree with Budget that a customer should be responsible for what happens to a car while in his or her possession. But typically, that applies to visible, exterior damage like a cracked windshield or dented bumper. Properly maintaining the car is the agency’s responsibility. If there’s a chance Elqatto’s vehicle hadn’t been properly maintained, shouldn’t Budget share some of the blame for the blown-up engine?

Should I mediate this case? Survey says …

I’ll take that as a “yes.” I’ve contacted Budget.

Update (1/27): The case is solved. Elqatto just received the following note from Budget.

Please allow this letter to serve as confirmation that we are in receipt of your e-mail dated Nov 3rd, 2010 to a Mr. Christopher Elliott.

We have reviewed your e-mail as well as our billing documents with our Attorney, Yates & Schiller. It is our Attorney’s recommendation at this time that we close this claim. We are no longer requesting payment from you.

(Photo: Mother He art/Flickr Creative Commons)

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