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The Navigator: When travel companies sue their customers

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By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, February 7, 2010

When a young woman named Carissa knocked at my door on a recent Saturday evening and introduced herself as a process server, I knew things were about to get interesting.

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And when I read the civil action summons she handed me, I was intrigued.

A Florida-based travel agency had sued me for reporting about its legal troubles on my blog. (I won't name the agency, because I think part of the reason it filed a complaint was because it craves publicity. Denied.) Next to my name on the suit, I recognized the name of one of the agency's clients.

Yes, the company was taking one of its own customers to court.

Apparently he had made some comments online that the agency didn't like.

The episode left me wondering whether travel companies are becoming more litigious and whether travelers can do anything to avoid a visit from someone like Carissa. The answers are yes and yes.

Greg Grant, a lawyer with the Potomac-based law firm Shulman Rogers, says that travel company lawsuits against customers appear to be on the rise. The reason: money.

"Tough economic times may give businesses more reason to bring these actions against customers," he said.

When companies are in the black, they're less likely to pursue a customer who has damaged a rental car or trashed a hotel room. The most extreme measure they'd consider is sending an unpaid bill to a collection agency. But at a time like this, when every penny counts, they're taking the legal option.

By the way, can you guess which part of the travel industry is the most lawsuit-happy? Is it airlines, with their draconian fare rules? Hotels, which are fond of charging you for items in your room that you might or might not have broken? No.

Try rental-car companies.

"They sue customers on a dime, and for small amounts of money, which is really not good policy," said Edward Neiger, a personal and corporate bankruptcy lawyer in New York. "The other industries sue less often."

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