Elliott: Why take a rental car that looks like wreck?

12/26/2010 12:00 AM

12/26/2010 12:49 AM

The car was a mess. It had paint on the outside of the windshield and no gas in the tank. An Enterprise representative thrust a clipboard into my face and told me to "sign here." I did.

I drove the car home, where it was parked in my driveway the entire time. When I returned the car, I was told that I had damaged it. I was speechless, since there was no way the car could have been damaged in any way while it was in my possession. A representative said she would write something up and send it to me. Later, I received a bill for $775 from Enterprise. I did not damage the car. What can I do?— Nancy Westcott, Jacksonville, Fla .

A: Enterprise should have offered you a clean car with a full tank of gas, and given you enough time to inspect the vehicle before driving away.

Sending you on your way with a car you didn't want, and that hadn't been properly serviced, is not anyone's idea of good customer service. Pursuing you for damage that you probably weren't responsible for — that's also questionable.

I don't understand how Enterprise could have offered you insurance, but then told you it didn't have a car. Why would you want insurance if you didn't have anything to drive?

But more to the point, why would you accept a car that had no fuel in the tank and looked like a wreck? If a car rental company runs out of vehicles, it needs to find a car from another company and pay for it — at least that's the industry standard policy.

When someone stuck a clipboard in your face and ordered you to sign, did you read the document? Normally, you'll find a diagram of a car where you can note any pre-existing damage to the vehicle. It's important to note everything that you see, even the smallest scratch, because when you return your rental, the company will.

The empty fuel tank is troubling, too. Not only would you have to fill the tank, but you'll be expected to return the car with a full fuel tank unless you make special arrangements with the car rental company. It's unclear if you were able to do that.

Once Enterprise decided to pursue you for damages, having the proper paperwork that notes the pre-existing problems would have made this an open-and-shut case. But without any notations, Enterprise would be forced to assume that you were responsible for the car as it is — scratches, paint and all.

I wouldn't have driven off the lot without first trying to resolve this. Don't let someone "get back to you" with a bill. Ask to speak with a manager and explain the situation. If the representative from whom you originally rented the car is available, it might be easy to fix this claim this by asking to speak with him or her.

Once you're at this stage, where the car rental company is sending you a bill by mail, all hope isn't lost. You can (and should) request written evidence that you were responsible for the damage, including repair bills and any evidence of loss of use. Ask for time-stamped photos and invoices that show the car rental company had to fix the car after you rented it. Copy the attorney general and insurance commissioner in the state in which you rented the car. Often, the car rental company will back down, because it's difficult to conclusively prove you were responsible for the damage.

(Of course, if you were responsible, I'm not suggesting you try to use these tactics to avoid paying the bill. I'm just saying that you shouldn't pay for something you didn't do.)

I contacted Enterprise on your behalf, and it agreed to drop its claim.

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