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Consummate Consumer

Ding or Damage? Car Rental Dispute Is a Cautionary Tale

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page C10

While her car was being repaired in April, Antonia Balazs rented a 2004 Ford Focus from Enterprise Rent-a-Car in the District. She had rented cars from Enterprise before and never ran into a problem. This time, a problem apparently ran into her.

When Balazs returned the rental car four days later, an Enterprise employee found three small scuffs on the rear bumper. He wrote it up as "a group of tiny gashes" and said Enterprise would decide whether to file a claim to her insurance company.

Balazs argued that it was a normal city parking scrape and bristled at the idea of having to pay a $300 deductible if a claim were filed. Before signing the damage report, she wrote in the margin that "it would be totally unreasonable to file a claim for average city wear and tear."

"You really did practically need a magnifying glass to see the nicks," says Balazs, a historian and District resident.

She says that was the last she heard of the nicked bumper until a month ago, when Enterprise called to ask why she hadn't paid the $300 and threatened to give her overdue account to a collection agency.

"I told her that I'd disputed from the start and continued to dispute that there was any damage," says Balazs, adding she was never notified that Enterprise filed the claim.

Balazs thinks hers is a cautionary tale for anyone who rents a car. The small type in the rental agreement clearly states that the renter is responsible for any damage, she says, but she doesn't like "being at the mercy of whatever Enterprise decides" is damage rather than a ding.

But Marianne Sullivan, president of the Minneapolis-based Association for Car and Truck Rental Independents and Franchisees, says the industry standard is that "any damage is significant," even small scrapes, because they reduce the value of the car that eventually will be sold back to the manufacturer or to the public.

"On the contract there is standard language that explains the condition you leave in is what we expect back," she says.

Sullivan cautions consumers to "be mindful" during the walk-around inspections when the car is rented and when it's returned. "Be diligent about pointing out scratches," she says. "It generally prevents an awful lot of problems."

But Balazs says it isn't fair that consumers are powerless to contest the extent of damage or price of repair. Enterprise told her she could not appeal, she says. "They didn't have to consult me at all about any damage -- other than sending me the bill."

Says Enterprise spokesman Lee Broughton: "If they believe the sustained damage to their vehicle did not take place during the rental period and while the vehicle was in their control, they must dispute it and Enterprise will work with them to find a resolution. We look to ensure the customer is satisfied with doing business with us, even when a dispute may exist."

In Balazs's case, Broughton says that although there was damage that required repair, what wasn't typical was "the lengthy period" between when the damage was noted and when Balazs was contacted about the claim. "We do apologize for the inconvenience," he says.

Last week, Enterprise Regional Vice President John Derose decided to waive Balazs's $300.

Fuel Savers

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DOE's "Energy Savers -- Tips on Saving Energy & Money at Home" is available in English and Spanish at www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/energy_savers/or by calling 877-337-3463. The Alliance's "Power$mart -- Easy Tips to Save Money and the Planet" is at www.ase.org/powersmart and can be ordered by calling 888-878-3256.


For tips on renting a car, see the Federal Trade Commission's Web site: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/autos/carrent.htm

Enterprise Rent-a-Car's Web site is www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home.do

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company