Sounds like a scam: Budget Ireland bills me for a new clutch, but I only drove a few clicks

Renting a car in Europe can take some getting used to for the average American visitor. The vehicles are smaller. Gas is more expensive. And most of the cars have manual transmissions.

And Americans, who are accustomed to driving automatic-transmission vehicles, are notorious for burning out clutches. It’s gotten to the point where any transmission problems are blamed on operator error — whether it’s true or not.

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But when Ashley Pallotta contacted me back in 2009 with her burned-out transmission story from Ireland, it sounded like a possible scam.

She explained,

I rented a car from the Dublin airport, a VW Golf, and it was acting funny from the start. It stalled when the clutch was almost fully depressed and the gears would grind even when the clutch was fully depressed.

At first I dismissed the stalling as learning a new car’s behavior. But after only driving the vehicle for 9 km, the clutch burnt out leaving me stranded.

Keep in mind I have years of experience on a stick shift as it was the first car I learned how to drive.

I filled out an incident report and was told I would be contacted within days if there were any issues. I left Ireland for the USA 16 days later. Six weeks after that, I received a bill in the mail.

Her car rental agency, Budget Ireland, ended up charging her credit card $1,800. But the charges looked funny to her.

This was over $200 to tow the vehicle from Dublin to Galway (apparently there are no car shops in the country’s capital?) along with $700 for 8 hours of labor, plus parts, an a “loss of car hire” fee.

Even insurance companies get to assess damage before paying. Why wasn’t I afforded this opportunity? I was never given a copy of my statement or given a copy of the investigative report that apparently concluded I was at fault. I was never even notified I was being held liable until after my credit card had been charged.

There is no way I burned out a clutch in only 9 km and there is no way it should cost almost $2K to repair. I’m stuck because I can’t fight an international battle. Budget of the U.S says they have no jurisdiction and I’ve called the Ireland Budget HQ directly to no avail.

This is troubling on many levels. The bill didn’t make much sense, from the towing charge to the highly questionable “loss of use” fee. I don’t understand how a car rental company can justify a loss of use without proving it would have lost the revenue, and even then, it sets a very bothersome precedent. By that logic, we should be able to charge car rental firms a “loss of vacation” fee when they keep us waiting in a long line at the car rental counter.

Anyway, my records show that I contacted Budget, but that nothing happened. The bill stuck.

But Palotta didn’t give up. She wrote to every appropriate regulatory agency. She disputed the charges on her credit card (it didn’t work). Finally, she did what very few Americans do: She teamed up with another customer who’d received a similar bill from Budget, and pursued a claim through the Irish courts.

An initial demand letter from the attorney was unsuccessful. But the weren’t deterred.

I made a spreadsheet of all of my costs (hours spent on this case over 8 months times my engineering wage, plus international calls, certified letters sent, etc) and that, plus the $1,800 came out to $4,700.

I started demanding that cost instead.

When the lawyer finally served them with a court date, guess what? They sent us both checks for $4,700!

It took 8 months of stress and is not worth it still.

But for the two St. Patty’s Day since that has happened, I’ve thrown huge Anti-Budget St. Patty’s day parties at my house to remind everyone not to use Budget. I have a Budget “wheel of misfortune” where people can spin and see what happens and I use real cases that I found on the internet (i.e. “oops, there is a 2 inch scratch on your car. You owe Budget $1,500!”).

The first year I sent the evite to the Budget folks in Ireland and about half of them at least viewed the invitation, which I found entertaining.

I’m happy this case was finally resolved. Had I successfully mediated her case, the best she could have hoped for was a refund of $1,800. (It’s unclear from my own records how Budget managed to squirm out of this one. Often, companies try to ignore complaints that I share with them in the hopes that I’ll just go away, and when you’re mediating hundreds of cases a week, a case can slip through the cracks. I should have been more vigilant.)

As to the clutch problem, beware folks! This could be the European version of the ding and dent scam, and it apparently preys on American tourists. If you’re uncomfortable driving a standard-transmission car on the wrong side of the road, do yourself a favor and take the train.

(Photo: physis3141/Flickr)

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