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Rear-Ended by a Rental

DILEMMA

All I did was obey the law and stop for a red light. I was rear-ended by a young man, insured by xxx, driving a rental car from yyy in Columbus, Ohio. The xxx company did an extremely timely and accommodating follow-up to the accident. My claim was filed that afternoon with my convenience and preference a high priority for location in regards to the estimate and repairs to my car. The adjuster was at my home the next day, and I had the paperwork to begin those repairs by July 21. I took the papers and car to the body shop and all looked in order. I was scheduled to bring the car back on July 27 for repair.

When the body shop called that same day to ask for two hours of labor to finish up the minor bumper repairs, xxx said they were not the primary insurer because the car that rear-ended me was a rental car – and the problem was dumped into my lap.

That led to 11 days of battle. I was able to bring our car home on August 11 – 15 days after repairs were completed. The short of it: Neither will work with the other to resolve who will pay $510. It has cost me multiple hours of time on the phone prodding and playing insurance-world games to have my claim tended to. It was utterly exhausting and kept me from my own work — not to mention the stress, inconvenience, and travel costs to keep an eye on post-accident pain.

I made it a priority to keep costs down on this as much as possible both for the insurer. I did not rent a car and kept medical bills to a minimum.

What should I do?

Rear-Ended
Columbus, Ohio

RESPONSE

Dear Rear-Ended:
I am sorry to hear of your travails. It sounds to me like you are not only out $510 but also had hours of inconvenience and many carless days.

Unfortunately you don’t have many options. When the amount in dispute is relatively small, companies have an incentive to deny coverage and hope that the “hassle factor” for you will be greater than the possible recovery of the amount in dispute. In short, they hope you will give up and go away.

Theoretically, you could hire an attorney to pursue a claim for you, but this would almost certainly cost you more in attorney’s fees than you would ever be able to recover. You could bring an action in small claims court (without an attorney). While I am unfamiliar with the court system in Ohio, most states have courts designed to adjudicate smaller claims, and attorneys are typically not allowed in these courtrooms. You could sue the individual who rear-ended you, as well as the rental car company, and trust that this will get the attention of individuals authorized to settle the dispute. The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that it continues to add to the time and costs that you have already sunk into this matter.

Sometimes, writing a letter to the “President” of the company can get attention focused on your concern. You might enhance your leverage somewhat if you also included a letter that you plan to send to the Better Business Bureau, to the attorney general’s consumer protection division or to some comparable agency if your claim is not resolved. The company may be interested in ensuring that it does not have a “black eye” on record with one of these consumer-protection groups.

Lastly, the no doubt least palatable but perhaps most sensible approach would be to simply eat the costs and move on. One of the unfortunate truths of our judicial system is that for relatively small disputes the transaction costs typically associated with establishing the rectitude of your position can easily dwarf the amount in controversy. Sometimes as unjust as it is, it is simply wiser to absorb the loss associated with a random casualty rather than continuing to invest in seeking a more fair resolution.

At a deeper level, your conundrum highlights how important “trust” is in business relationships. If no companies honored their contractual obligations except when forced to do so by court orders, our entire system would collapse under the weight of attorney’s fees, court costs, and other attendant delays. In fact, most companies do routinely honor their obligations even when it would be possible to get away with not doing so. I regret that you have not had a better experience with the companies you are dealing with.

Jeff Van Duzer
Dean, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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