If you have ever traveled to another part of the country on vacation, you probably have rented a car at least once.  Likewise, if your own car has ever been in a repair shop for an extended period of time, you’ve probably rented a car to get around town for a few days.  Rental cars are a popular option for many people, whether they be used on a business trip or a vacation.  Most rental cars are appealing because they often are newer and seem safer and more reliable than the person’s own car.  They often are driven constantly by an endless stream of renters for hundreds of miles at a time.  

In October 2004, Jacquie Houck (age 20) and Raechel Houck (age 24) were killed in a crash in California involving a PT Cruiser that they had rented from Enterprise Rent-a-Car.  The vehicle crashed after a fire erupted under the hood, and the driver lost control of the car.  After lengthy litigation, Enterprise accepted a jury verdict that awarded $15 million to their family.  The issue in the case was that Enterprise rented the car to the Houcks even though the car had already been recalled by Chrysler for a safety defect.  The recall concerned a faulty power-steering house that could lead to fires.  The car had been recalled one month before the Houcks’ fatal crash.  

The Houcks’ mother (“Ms. Houck”) learned during the litigation that Enterprise had rented the vehicle three times prior without having the car repaired.  Enterprise is the nation’s largest car-rental company, and it also owns the National and Alamo car-rental brands.  

After the verdict, Enterprise acknowledged that it might still rent a recalled vehicle if it deemed the risk to be minimal.  Other rental car companies apparently maintain similar policies. 

Ms. Houck then began a quest to enact legislation with Senator Barbara Boxer in California that would prevent car rental companies in that state from renting cars that are subject to a recall.  Senator Boxer is also pushing rental car companies to make a public pledge “not to rent or sell any vehicles under safety recall until the defect has been remedied.”  Out of all of the rental car companies, only Hertz, the nation’s second most popular car-rental company, has supported the legislation and public pledge.  In a letter to Senator Boxer, Hertz made the commitment that the senator requested and also explained that it reflected “long-standing Hertz policy.”  

Sadly, the other car-rental companies have balked at the effort and have tried water-down the proposed legislation.  Enterprise has suggested that it might rent an unrepaired recalled vehicle for a failure in a seat-belt warning chime if it could advise a customer beforehand.  The rental car companies also argue that it’s very rare for manufacturers to explicitly tell consumers not to drive a repaired vehicle.  According to the rental-car companies’ stance, the consumer can decide on his own whether he wants to drive his own car when it is subject to a recall, so why should a rental car be subject to any different requirements?

Ms. Houck’s position is that renting cars to consumers that are subject to safety recalls puts the public at risk for accidents, injuries, and death.  Moreover, many rental car companies sell their cars to the general public.  Because recall notices do not travel with a car’s title, an unrepaired recalled car could easily end up in the hands of an unknowing buyer, putting that person and the general public at risk for injury or death.  

As Ms. Houck has explained, the solution to this problem is simple: if a car is under a safety recall, do not rent it, sell it, or put it in the hands of a consumer.  

What is your opinion on this issue?

Stephen Di Stefano is an attorney in Stark & Stark’s Marlton, New Jersey office, specializing in Accident & Personal Injury Law. For more information, please contact Mr. Di Stefano.