Is a burned-out clutch automatically my fault?

Question: My wife and daughter recently rented a car through Hertz in London. They purchased the Super Coverage insurance so there would be no hassle with any potential damages.

They did not get more than 10 miles from the airport when the clutch in the car malfunctioned, leaving them stranded in the middle of the road. She was pushed off the highway, and in doing so damaged the front tire and wheel going up onto the curb.

She immediately called the emergency number for Hertz but no one could help her. She finally called the hotel and they sent a car to get her and return her to the airport to get a new car.

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We assumed an inoperable car due to a defective clutch was not our liability. We had no indication of any problem until we received an invoice for 1,233 pounds (about $1,900 USD) for replacement of a clutch in the car. They have supplied detailed information about how the clutch was inoperable but nothing that states my wife abused the car resulting in this problem. Hertz says the Super Coverage does not cover this type of damage.

I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, via fax, via email and by letter trying to get Hertz to explain to me why they feel I am liable for the replacement of a clutch in their car. My wife drives a car with a standard transmission all the time and there is no way she caused this damage. I successfully disputed the charge on my credit card, but now Hertz is sending me notices from a collection agency. I will not pay this bill. — David Banta, Dallas

Answer: True, the insurance your wife bought covers damage to the car. So the damaged wheel was taken care of by her coverage. But the policy doesn’t apply to what the car rental company calls “gross negligence.”

“Unfortunately, a damaged clutch is considered gross negligence and Mrs. Banta was billed for the clutch replacement,” a Hertz spokeswoman told me.

This is a common problem for car rental customers in Europe. I’ve handled several damaged-clutch cases by Americans who allegedly didn’t drive the cars correctly. Hertz’s position is that any damage to the clutch is considered gross negligence, which may be a little extreme. It assumes any damaged clutch is the renter’s fault.

Making matters worse, Hertz didn’t come to your wife’s rescue when she phoned roadside assistance and it didn’t respond to your follow-up requests for information. You were forced into a credit-card dispute. Hertz then referred the case to a collections agency, which will eventually threaten to ding your credit score if you don’t fork over the money.

By the way, your wife is a brave woman to drive in England. I’m not sure if I would be able to handle a manual-transmission car on the wrong side of the road after a long transatlantic flight. I think I would have crashed the car.

How could you have avoided this? Skip the rental car or get one with an automatic transmission next time. Hertz shares my concern that no one responded to the call for help or answered your subsequent questions. “This is not the level of service that Hertz strives to deliver and we sincerely apologize for their trouble,” a spokeswoman said.

As a “gesture of goodwill,” Hertz dropped its claim against you.

56 thoughts on “Is a burned-out clutch automatically my fault?

  1. And of course it could very well have been the previous driver(s) that took the clutch to the breaking point; it’s not as if the clutch is carefully measured for wear at every single return.

    Unless you’ve never driven a stick shift in your life, burning it out in 10 miles would be pretty tough.  (Is that even possible without leaving a burning cloud of clutch smoke everywhere you go?)  This claim was surely bogus.

    That said, even though I drive a stick at home, I’d never rent one in England either.

  2. I drive in the UK all the time but I’m too chicken to drive a stick there (whole shifting with the wrong hand).

    If the OP is absolutely correct on their timeline and distance, I don’t see how they can be held responsible. I’d honestly ask how it is even possible to burn out the clutch that quickly. Far more likely that it was cumulative damage over multiple renters (note: if she had had the car for days or driven to Edinburgh from London before it happened, I would probably feel differently.).

    1. After one tries to shift the door handle, one learns quickly where the shifter is.  ; )     Thank goodness, the foot pedals are all in the same relative positions!

      1. If you’d ever watched me try and do something with my left hand, you’d understand why its in everyone’s best interest that I drive an automatic and leave the sticks to our side of the pond.

  3. There is “gross negligence” involved here, but not on the part of the driver.  I drive a standard transmission car every day, as I have for nearly 40 years, and only once has a clutch failed while I was driving – and this was after 76,000 miles.  My kids have learned to drive with out causing damage.  Clutches need periodic maintenance and it does not seem this particular one got any.  I don’t see why a renter should have to pay more to get an automatic transmission, especially if she regularly drive a manual, just to save herself from someone else’s lack of maintenance!  Don’t automatic transmissions fail too?  This is just an easy target for a needed clutch repair, Europeans drive manuals more often, stick the bad one on the American and assess  “gross negligence”.   I think I am safer in a manual, I am so used to it that my left foot has no idea what to do in an automatic!

    1. Gotta agree here.  I am an old man, and I drove a standard transmission for many years, INCLUDING  as a teenager, and was unable to damage the 16,when if the clutch could have been easily damaged, I probably would have.   I even had an old Volks without synchronization in first gear, and we just double clutched around it.  I HAVE had clutches fail, but just from long use.

    2. I agree with you and Theodore here.  Drove a clutch for years without it burning out.  I learned to drive a clutch in Germany on the back roads and spent two days learning how to hold myself steady using the clutch and the gas pedal.  I was pretty rough on the clutch and it didn’t burn out.  We had that car for several years and only got rid of it in favor of something larger for our growing family.  I miss that old VW wagon…

  4. Chris, your advice is crappy.  “Rent an automatic” is the best you can do? How about not even giving the appearance of assigning ANY culpability to the OP – she did everything right and Hertz did everything wrong.  This is just one of those times that they were caught red-handed trying to stick it to someone.

    And who is the one person who voted “yes”?  I’d just love to hear (and pick apart) their rationale.

  5. A gesture of goodwill? Hertz’s answer should’ve been “mea culpa!” This was pathetic service on their part.

    And $1900 for a clutch!?!? Uhh…rip off, much? Not to mention, even if she following the adage of “if you can’t find the gear, grind the gear” she couldn’t strip a clutch in 10 miles.

    Glad this one had a happy ending.

    1.  Hey, Raven – how’s the baby? We were just talking about you in that “I could have been murdered!!!11!!!” thread over there.

    2. I agree. It was no gesture of goodwill. If taken to any court, just about any mechanic could be brought in off the street to testify that the damage is cumulative and does not happen in 10 miles. hertz should have apologized and sent coupons for free rentals as a way of saying “I’m sorry”

    3.  $1,900 isn’t necessarily out of line.  It depends on how easy the clutch is to replace, and how much the parts cost.  When my clutch goes in my ’04 Passat, that sounds about right… (105k and still going…)

      But yes, I agree, unless you are leaving a trail of clutch smoke behind you, the idea of burning it in 10 miles is stupid.

  6. Driving in the UK:  It’s hard driving on the wrong side of the road.  It’s harder shifting with the wrong hand.  But where I almost got creamed was going through roundabouts (and I’m used to rotaries from driving in MA and NH…)

    I agree that a clutch should not be burned out in 10 miles, no matter how bad the driver.

    We had an argument with a Volvo dealer.  My wife’s second 240 wagon started having clutch problems at 25k miles.  The dealer tried to argue it was her driving.  I asked, “So why did her previous 240 wagon have its original clutch after 110k miles?”  Eventually we pressed our point hard enough that the dealership told us to not return (as if we would buy a car from Volvo of Nashua ever again…)

  7. I’d say it depends on what your used to.  For me driving an automatic in england would be worse.  Heck I have some trouble renting a car in the US always mashing my left foot into the dead spot on the floor, and wondering why the car won’t start.  

  8. A dent in the car is one thing–it wasn’t there when the car went out so the renter gets charged for what clearly happened on their watch–but clutches go out just like every other mechanical part on a car. What’s next, charging for redoing the brakes?  

    It’s almost impossible to destroy an otherwise good clutch in 10 miles of driving. To automatically charge the renter is absurd. I think she’d have a better shot at suing them for renting her a dangerous vehicle than they would proving she was at fault in this case.  Yet, it’s their standard practice to hold the renter accountable?  That’s horrible business. If it’s that big a problem, maybe they should quit renting out manual transmissions.

  9. There is no way anyone could grossly abuse a clutch in 10 minutes short of taking a sledgehammer to it. Hertz clearly had a maintenance issue with this and should have stepped up to the plate, apologized for the customer’s inconvenience (perhaps even compensated them and moved on. To charge a customer for needed repairs is, to use a British term, “Cheeky.”  Shame!

  10. I drive cars and trucks with Manual Transmission (and a clutch) regularly and have done so since I was about 10 years old (OK, I was a farm boy).

    It’s painful for me to ride with someone who doesn’t know how to use a clutch, but . . .

    It’s pretty obvious to me that Hertz rented this vehicle to one or more drivers who abused it over some period of time and Mr. Banta just was the big winner in the dead-clutch lottery.

    Having changed my own clutch a few times, I believe you can damage a clutch in the parking lot if you really try, but I doubt you’d find any credible mechanic to say a rental car clutch burning out in 10 miles was the fault of that driver.  There must be substantial abuse over some period of time.
    Maybe driving in San Francisco for 10 days could do it, but not in 10 miles in London.

  11. There is a doctrine called ‘betterment’ that comes into play here –

    Lets assume that the OP damaged the clutch.  How many miles [km] were on the car?  If there  were 36k and the average clutch in a rental lasts 40kj – then they are entitled to 10% of their costs since they got 90% of the value of the clutch in prior rentals. 

    So – even if she destroyed the clutch in 10 miles of driving, they are not entitled to the full value of a wear item such as a clutch – now – if they replaced it in the last couple hundred miles then I might have a warranty claim against the prior repair person . . . they are not entitled to full value for a wear item such as a clutch.

    This is one of the most bogus damage claims I have ever seen being made by a car company. . . .

    1. While I don’t disagree with your end point, I’m not sure that US legal standards apply since it was a UK rental.

      1. It’s a basic legal principle, not something the US dreamed up.  The same  principle would apply if the car was totaled–the loss is the value of the vehicle at the time of the wreck, not the replacement cost of a brand new vehicle.  Dents and other damages are paid in full because that’s getting the car back into the shape it was in prior to the accident. But side panels don’t wear out the way mechanical parts do.  

        Extending Hertz’s logic to other parts of the car, they could rent to you with nearly bald tires and then decide you owed them for a whole new set because the tread wear indicator became visible during your rental. Or, what if the brakes start to squeak while you have the car? They could say you abused them and want you to put on a whole new set.

        The whole idea is absurd.

        1. Joe … wasn’t arguing that it didn’t apply. Just that it might not.
          I have had clients go to the UK and attempt to apply US standards and laws to incidents especially what qualifies as negligence. They get a quick lesson that they aren’t in KS any more.

  12. I burned out a clutch many years ago while learning to start on a steep hill. The easiest way to do it was to “ride” the clutch but that will strip it in a hurry. I t took much more than the equivalent of 10 miles to do so, however.

  13. “How could you have avoided this? Skip the rental car or get one with an automatic transmission next time.”
    Until this issue on your site, why would any American have even considered this?  
    She needed a car, she knew how to drive a manual, hence she rented one. 
    To even conceive that any damage outside of a collision would happen, is pretty out there. 
    Until you raised the issue here, of course, so we now have the privilege of following your sage advice.

  14. This edition pegged my BS meter at the headline.  I’ve track and drag raced manual transmissions since the late ’50s and don’t even know how a cluctch could be destroyed in 10 miles unless the driver partially depressed the clutch pedal to cause it to slip against the flywheel AND simultaneously operated the engine at very high rpm.  Shame on Hertz. 

  15. I wonder how old this car is. In my experience, car rental companies in Europe keep cars around a lot longer than companies do here in the U.S.  It makes me wonder if the clutch wasn’t simply worn over time — did the clutch go, or was it the entire transmission?

    In any event, I don’t think Hertz’s dropping the claim is going to do anything for these folks.  The collection agency owns the putative debt, and they aren’t likely to back down.

    1. why not?  The collection agencies work on commission – if they collect they get the money.  In this case – their efforts are for naught since THERE IS NO LONGER A DEBT TO COLLECT – the days of agencies buying debt are long over.

  16. Speaking of damaging a clutch…it can also happen to your own vehicle if you leave it with a valet parking service.

    I left my car with an airport valet parking company instead of one of the self-serve parking companies at the airport.  When I returned 3 days later, I get into my car before leaving the parking lot, and it was hard to not notice an extremely strong burning smell coming from the engine.  I had no idea what that burning smell was and it was definitely not coming from my car prior to leaving it there.  I went to see the manager who refused to go out to my car to confirm the burning smell.  He gave me a small discount on my parking charge just so I would leave.

    The burning smell never dissipated as I drove home and was still going strong the next day.  So I took my car to my dealership and the mechanic confirmed the burning smell was coming from the clutch.  His words…”definitely caused by someone who doesn’t know how to drive a manual.  And the cost to replace the clutch will be $900 plus taxes.”  Now I was burning mad!!

    My car was purchased brand new in 2003 and driven only by me, my husband, or the mechanic at my dealership.  My previous car, which I owned for 18 years, also had a manual transmission and the original clutch was replaced after driving it 16 years.

    So I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.  Through some heated discussions with the general manager of valet parking company, we settled with his company paying for 50% of the replacement costs.

    Be careful…never let anyone else drive your car, especially if it’s a manual.  And never rent a manual transmission vehicle because you never know what kind of bozos were “driving” it before you.

    1. the BBB is worthless – don’t even bother – are they even a member?  Sounds like you got exactly nowhere . . .  except to another dealer which is where you should have gone after the first dealer refused to work with you – 

      1. Joe, What were you reading?
        Going through BBB got the attention of the general manager, not the lowly manager but the GM of the airport valet company.  The GM and I negotiated a settlement.  If you had actually read my post, I said his company paid 50% of the clutch replacement costs, a fair settlement in my view.  I believe he wanted to settle in order to maintain a good standing with the BBB.

        All done without enlisting the help of Chris. 🙂

  17. Dumb and Dumber … Hertz deserves first prize in this situation.  I’m sure that lots of Americans don’t know how to use a manual transmission, but to have a blanket policy that the renter is responsible for a damaged clutch is beyond belief.  One of the reasons to rent from Hertz at their inflated prices is to avoid possible terrible customer service from a lesser-known company.  And they left her on the side of the road?  Dumb and Dumber award for the YEAR.   I have rented cars through AutoEurope (a broker) using American Express for years.without a single problem; I’m confident that if I did have a problem with a rental car they would assist me in resolving it, along with AmEx.  Customer service is now globally deteroirated to the point of idiocy, and I want all the help I can get!

  18. My son has an answer to the collection agencies for phony or trumped up bills.  He first sends written notice of dispute, then when they ignore him, he goes into small claims court and sues under FCRA for lots of money.  You do NOT need a lawyer to do this, but you DO have to make sure you fill ot the forms correctly, and have a paper trail.  Almost always, the collection agency settles RAPIDLY, and he gets it off of his record.  They do not want to lose in court, and be in the papers.
      Oh, don’t expect to GET the maximum penalties you can sue for, but ASKING for them encourages the other side to at least pay your expenses and to settle.rapidly.  The main object is to make them GO AWAY! 

  19. I’m posting this before reading anyone else’s responses because I’m just not believing Hertz in this instance. If I repeat something said elsewhere on this one, I apologize in advance.

    1.  A clutch is going to break at some point.  It receives wear and tear over the course of hundreds if not thousands of miles.
    2.  A clutch breaking down 10 miles from the pick up point is NOT the fault of the current renter.  A clutch simply doesn’t break that quickly.
    3.  Hertz taking this stance makes it seem as though their preying on their renters and assuming they don’t know anything at all about how the mechanics of a car works in the slightest.

    In short – they need to back off this one.  Were I the OP, I’d take the ding to the credit, unless they’re in the process of buying a house or car.  It’ll be off their credit in three years and all will be well.

  20. Here we go again, with the “gesture of goodwill” garbage.  If the OP somehow ruined the clutch, and Hertz can document it, they should stick to their guns.  If (as is really the case, of course) the sleazebags at Hertz are trying to cheat the OP and they’ve been caught with their pants down, they should apologize themselves silly.  To claim that (a) they’re right, but (b) they’re going to let the OP off the hook after she did $1900 worth of damage to their car is beyond stupid, period–even more stupid than their original bogus claim against her. 

    I went through hell with Hertz in Ireland over a similar bogus claim of “damage.”  Hertz’s cheating is probably a measurable percentage of the GDP in UK and Ireland, it’s so prevalent there (according to the people at my ccard company)…

    I have to ask, though: why are they even renting cars with a stickshift?!  I thought all rental cars were automatic as of years ago!  I used to always ask specifically for an automatic, but when they all started to laugh at my request, saying “we don’t rent sticks any more,” I even stopped asking, and haven’t seen one at a rental agency for years!  Am I just living a charmed life, or what? 

    1. I suspect that a much larger group of Europeans learn to drive a standard transmission than Americans making European rental places more likely to have some available for rent.

  21.  A shuttle to the hotel, and having the concierge secure a private car and driver for the duration, is the only way to really enjoy the UK. (Aye, it’s worth the extra expense!)

  22. It’s actually quite hard to rent an automatic in the UK and Europe. If a given hire car company has say 12 different classes of car, often only the most expensive luxury one will be automatic. So just telling them to “rent an automatic next time” is not all that helpful.

  23. You don’t burn out a clutch after 10 miles, no matter how badly you drive.  I drive a stick shift now, have for years.  I had one go out on me at around 90K miles and never another problem, even when I was learning how to drive one.

    1. I’m pretty sure I could intentionally burn out a clutch in 10 miles.  There probably isn’t a single person driving a manual who hasn’t smoked a clutch going from a dead stop uphill (try driving a manual in San Francisco) a few times. I could ride a clutch half depressed and just glaze it over without even wearing it out.  Once it’s glazed there’s not enough friction for normal operation even if there’s plenty of disc material left.

  24. I am sure that clutches go as a result of misuse over a longer period of time.  I’ve rented cars from Hertz at London Heathrow many times.  They have always been professional and courteous.  I’ve never had a problem with them.  Chris, after you get used to driving on the opposite side of the road with an automatic, then switching to a standard is trivial.  I was surprised at that actually.   But then again, most people don’t rent there as much as I have.

  25. Given that clutch damage on a manual transmission is caused over time, Hertz’s billing practices here are nothing more than a game of musical chairs. It’s unethical, but the only option customers have is to not rent a manual transmission, or not rent from Hertz at all.

  26. I managed to drive a standard shift car for an entire day in the UK, even though I’m much more used to an automatic, and there was no damage to the clutch. (The automatic we rented a few days later was easier, of course, but getting used to the “wrong side” driving was a challenge both times.)

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