Am I responsible for maintaining the fluids in my rental car?

Once on a trip to Cancún, I rented a car for the two-hour drive to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. After pulling away from the rental office I noted that the fuel gauge wasn’t working. “No problem,” I thought, “I’m only keeping the car for the day and I’m sure they topped off the gas after the last rental.”

An hour later, I was on the side of the highway thumbing a ride with a Mexican trucker to get gas. I’d made an invalid assumption.

As apparently did John Agudelo, who also found himself and his family stranded on the side of a highway, this time in Florida. Inadequate fluid levels in his vehicle from Sixt Rent a Car had caused it to break down.

He and his family were stranded for hours before a tow truck arrived and got them to a replacement vehicle.

But the unpleasantries didn’t end there.

Agudelo tells us that at some point after the rental he was contacted by a claims company and told that he owed a $1,000 for repairs to the vehicle. When he objected, he got the following response.

I have attached my client’s terms and conditions for you to review. Please be advised it’s the renters responsibility to check and maintain all fluid levels.

That being said I am willing to remove the administration fee to resolve the claim. Please advise me how you would like to resolve the adjusted balance $988.

Small comfort.

But it could have been worse. Back in 2013 we told the story of a rental car that stopped working in Aruba. In that case, the renter had to personally pay $400 to the tow truck driver, and then got a $6,270 credit card charge from the rental car company for damages.

We noted in that story that when you rent a car, you accept the responsibility for it. If you damage it, you — or your insurance — covers it. And if it was a manufacturing’ or maintenance defect, then you, the driver, have to prove it. On the flip side, the car rental company must prove that the damage was done while you were renting the vehicle, and also provide adequate documentation of the damage and repair cost.

In that case, the rental car company didn’t provide that documentation, and the renter’s credit card company suspended the charge.

The issue with damage caused by inadequate maintenance of fluids is a bit dicier.

The Sixt terms and conditions do indeed note that the renter must “check and maintain all fluid levels.”

But doesn’t a renter have a reasonable expectation that fluids have been topped off before each rental? Isn’t the fact that someone else deals with maintenance part of the enjoyment of a vacation rental car? Is there a difference here between what the rental car contract may say and what the right thing is for the rental car company to do in this situation?

Do rental car customers have a right to assume that routine maintenance has been performed on the car they’re receiving? We’ve also heard stories of rental cars with expired insurance and registration papers. Who is on the hook if a rental car driver gets pulled over by authorities? Are rental car companies holding up their end of these complicated agreements?

Now Agudelo has asked us to advocate for him. If we decide to do so, the first things we’ll want to know are how long he had the car before it broke down and if there were indicator lights that should have alerted him to low fluid levels.

The answers to those questions will reveal a lot about how strong his case is.

In his email to us Agudelo expresses his appreciation for our car rental FAQs and notes that they’ll be helpful for future rentals. But for his last one, sadly, it’s too late.

Should we take John Agudelo’s case?

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