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.

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