Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter, October 22, 2013
After a grill falls off her rental car, the company sends her a bill for $669. Does she have to pay?
Q: I'm hoping you can give me some advice about a damage claim that my car rental company states I am financially responsible for. I rented a car from Alamo in Reno, Nev., recently. The paperwork was signed and initialed as the person at the counter indicated. Then I was escorted to the garage where the cars were kept.
My husband walked around the car and didn't notice any damage. I drove from the airport rental location directly to our hotel in Reno, where the car was parked for two days. Several days later, when we left Reno to drive to Las Vegas, I noticed that the plastic grill on the front of the car was uneven. My husband inspected and found that it was loose but still connected.
About an hour outside of Las Vegas there was a scraping noise and I heard something drop off the car. Assuming (correctly) that it was the plastic grill, I drove back to retrieve the piece. The next day I called the Reno Alamo location to tell them this piece had fallen off the car.
I explained that until we drove from Reno to Las Vegas the car had been in the hotel garage, that I was the only driver and there were no accidents to account for any damage. The Alamo representative said there was nothing she could do other than to tell us we were responsible for any damage to the vehicle.
It was obvious that a previous driver had damaged the vehicle and managed to hide that damage. When I pulled into the drop-off lane at Alamo, a representative with his handheld computer loudly asked what we had done to scratch the car up so badly. At that my husband and I got out of the car to ask him to show us what he was yelling about.
He pointed to some swirls in the paint finish that looked like car wash wear. We weren't even aware of any scratches so we were quite shocked. Then he wrote up an "Express Incident Report" in which we reported the damage.
Now Alamo wants to charge me $669 for the damage, saying it was pre-existing. My credit card covered the $250 deductible, but my insurance company won't cover the rest, saying that I shouldn't have signed the incident report. How can I reverse this decision? -- Mary Okincicas, Chicago
A: This isn't an easy problem to fix because you signed a form acknowledging your responsibility when you returned the vehicle.
Of course, there were a few things you could have done to prevent this from happening. A pre-rental inspection is always a good idea. Take pictures of the car from every angle and also inside, and if there's any damage, fill out a pre-rental report before you leave the lot. Make sure you get an employee to sign off on the form, and keep the paperwork in a safe place in case you need to refer to it later.
Had you done any of those things, then you wouldn't be faced with a $669 bill for random scratches and a loose grill.
By the way, you can appeal a bill by sending a brief, polite email to one of Alamo's executives. I list them on my site: http://elliott.org/contacts/alamo-rent-a-car/.
Just for the record: The terms of your rental are clear. If you take the keys, you accept responsibility for the vehicle. But as it turns out, Alamo had the same problem you did - iffy paperwork. When it sent you the bill, the photocopied pictures of the damaged vehicle didn't appear to be the one you rented. I thought that was enough reason to ask Alamo to give your case another review, just to make sure it had the right claim.
Alamo offered to zero out the remaining balance on your bill, an offer you accepted.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at [email protected]. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)