Christopher Elliott: Rental car liability shouldn't be forever

07/17/2011 12:00 AM

07/17/2011 5:57 AM

I'm certain this damage didn't happen while I was renting the car. My wife and three kids were with me. We were getting in and out of all the doors repeatedly. We would have noticed any damage. When I returned the car, the agent did a quick walk-around, and the car was fine.

I followed up by calling the claim representative at National. She checked, and in a follow-up call told me that she was recommending closing the claim. Then I got a phone call from National saying that they had figured out what happened, and it wasn't my fault, and they were closing the claim. So it all seemed fine until another month went by, and I got a letter saying that they had decided to pursue the claim after all.

I'm insured, and the loss is covered, but I'd rather use my insurance for when I actually have an accident! I'd always assumed that when you've returned a car and they have signed off and handed you a bill, then you aren't responsible for the vehicle any longer. Apparently that's not true.

My insurance company is contesting the claim, but they also say that the only real protection against a rental car company making this kind of claim is to take 8 to 10 time-stamped pictures of the car from different angles every time you return a rental car. This seems crazy to me. But is it something we should all start doing?— Timothy Taylor, Minneapolis

A: Yes. Take pictures of your car before and after your rental and keep them at least six months. The systems used to determine who damaged a rental are far from perfect. At least one company, Hertz, has pledged to begin photographing all of its cars before they leave the lot. The rest have less scientific ways of determining who is responsible for the dings, dents and scratches. If I didn't know any better, I'd say they try to guess who might have done it.

I've never come across a case where a car rental company dropped a claim and then reinstated it. That's really odd.

Here's what should have happened: When you returned your vehicle, a National employee should have walked around the car with you, noting any damage. If you spotted a fender-bender, you could have begun the claims process immediately. Contacting you weeks later doesn't make National's claim any more credible. Offering to let it go — and then making a "U"-turn — makes it lose all credibility, in my opinion.

Not only would an appeal to someone higher up at National or its owner, Enterprise, make sense, but you should also copy the Texas Department of Insurance.

Even if National had persisted, you could have asked for documentation that the car had been damaged while you were renting it. I seriously doubt the company could have furnished you with that proof.

I contacted National on your behalf. A representative called you and said that the damage was done to the car before you rented it.

You'd think they'd notice something like that before you picked up the car, don't you?

National is dropping its claim for good.

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