How to dispute (and win) rental car damage claims

You can’t stop a rental car company from sending you a damage claim, but there are steps you can take to prepare yourself in case they do.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters/File
In case a rental car company tries to fine you for vehicle damages, makes sure you have written and photographic evidence of the car's condition before and after the rental.

While attending my nephew’s wedding in Minnesota last year, I rented a car from a national company at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  I won’t mention the company name, but it’s one of the top rental companies in the United States and they have counters in almost every airport—no fly-by-night company.  Given their brand reputation and my previous experiences with them, I expected an uneventful and positive customer experience.

Imagine my surprise when 60 days later I received a bill for $858.70 from the company, stating that the car had been damaged while in my possession. Noting that I declined the loss damage waiver when I picked up the car, the letter explained that I could pay the claim by check, ask my insurance agent to call them directly or reject the claim.

The letter offered no description of the damage, nor any proof, so I called them to find out exactly what damage they were citing. They explained that the bottom of the front air dam was scratched. I thought to myself: Under the front air dam?  Every car gets scratched under the front air dam! After disputing the damage in writing, I called back several weeks later to check the status of my dispute, and was told the claim had been dropped. I never heard from them again.

You can’t stop a rental car company from sending you a damage claim, but there are steps you can take to prepare yourself in case they do.

Here’s what to do when you rent a car:

  • Take pictures of every dent or scratch on the body, interior, wheels and glass before you drive away—including under the front air dam. If they send you a claim, you can tell them you have pictures of all those damages before you drove away. Unless the car is brand new, chances are there’ll be some damage you’ll want to capture.
  • Ask an employee to document all scratches and dents before you drive the car.
  • Some companies require you to document any damages on a special form. On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, a car rental company handed me a damage form along with the keys and asked me to inspect the car, make a note of all damages and bring the form back to the counter before I drove away. It’s a good thing I did, as the car was heavily scratched and dented and I could have been liable for those damages if I was in a hurry and just drove off.

In the decades that I’ve rented cars, this is the first time a company has claimed any damage, so chances are likely slim that this will happen to you, too.  But if it does, and you haven’t properly documented the pre-existing damage, here’s what you can do:

  • Ask for time-stamped photos that were taken immediately before you drove the car off the lot. Otherwise, how do you know that a previous renter or one of their own employees didn’t damage the car before you got it?
  • Ask for time-stamped photos that were taken immediately after you returned the car. You’ll want to make sure that someone else didn’t damage the car after you returned it.
  • Ask them for a record of all rentals for that car between the time you returned it and the date of their damage claim letter. If they waited, say, 60 days to send you a damage claim, they’ve already rented it many times since you drove it, and they’ll have to prove that you actually caused the damage.
  • If the company’s representatives are completely uncooperative, report the firm to legal authorities in the state where you rented the car.

Nobody wants to get an expensive bill for damages they didn’t cause. It’s especially frustrating when it’s a rental car in another city, leaving consumers feeling like they have no choice but to pay up. But by taking some precautionary steps you can save yourself time, money and frustration.

Learn more about Gary on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor.

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