In October, 2004, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck were driving in their rented PT Cruiser to visit their parents in Ventura County, California. Tragically, the sisters were both killed instantly when the PT Cruiser’s engine burst into flames and the car hit an oncoming tractor-trailer.
The tragedy could have been prevented if only the rental agency, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, had addressed a recall notice on the PT Cruiser instead of ignoring it. In 2005, a jury agreed, and awarded the parents of the Houck sisters $15 million as a result of a lawsuit filed against Enterprise after the girls’ fatal accident. Enterprise was accused of “carelessly, recklessly and unlawfully” ignoring a recall notice, an action which led to the accident.
There is no federal law requiring prompt action by rental car companies to address recall defects. Recall repairs are free for rental car companies, as they are for other vehicle owners, but grounding multiple vehicles can lead to a loss in profits.
A survey conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that Hertz, Enterprise (which also owns National and Alamo) and Avis/Budget have rented tens of thousands of their vehicles with unfixed recall defects to unsuspecting drivers. The survey asked rental companies to provide data on how many cars with recall defects are fixed within 90 days of notice. Enterprise had the best rate of action, with 65 percent of vehicles fixed. Hertz had the worst record, with only 34 percent of vehicles repaired within 90 days.
The repercussions of such negligence can be fatal, as portrayed by the Houck accident. Rental car companies say they prioritize recall defects, immediately fixing the most serious problems. However, the fact that 35 percent to 66 percent of vehicles in the rental car industry remain unfixed after three months of a recall notice is disturbing.
Fortunately, there has been effort in the rental car industry to address recalls more swiftly. In 2010, Enterprise and Avis grounded all of their Pontiac vehicles affected by a sticky accelerator pedal recall. Since the NHTSA survey, Hertz has revised its policy toward recalls and now grounds all vehicles under a recall until the defect is fixed, regardless of the gravity of the issue.
Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, recommends that consumers inquire into recall status of any vehicle they are renting. If a company refuses to share the information with a customer, that customer should take their business elsewhere. It could be the difference between a safe trip and tragic car accident.
If you or a loved one have been injured or killed in an accident that was the result of an unfixed recall on a rental car, please seek the advice of an experienced motor vehicle accident attorney.