Wednesday 23 October 2019

Disputing unfair charges for tiny scratches on hired car

Your questions answered

'If you have insurance, check if the damage is covered and consider making a claim.' Stock image
'If you have insurance, check if the damage is covered and consider making a claim.' Stock image

Martina Nee

Q My family and I have just returned from a holiday in France. We rented a car for the duration, but when we returned it, the car hire company pointed out four tiny scratches on the bumper - and said it would cost €1,000 to repair this so-called damage. I contested this charge but got nowhere and as I had to catch a flight back home with my family, I paid the charge - with the intention of challenging it later. I took pictures of the scratches. Do I have any chance of getting the €1,000 back? John, Co Wexford

As there is no industry-specific legislation to regulate the car hire sector, disputing damage charges can be very challenging. Very often, it is your word against the rental company's - but if you have the documentation and proof to back up your complaint, then you have a chance of proving you were charged unfairly.

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If the damage to your rental car was pre-existing when you collected it, then it would have been beneficial to point this out to the car rental representative at the time, and to take photos and get a signed copy of the check-out form (showing where the damage was). The check-out form describes the state of a car when you first pick it up.

If the damage was caused during your rental (even if you did not realise it), then it would be marked on the check-in form (which describes the state of a car when it's returned).

If the damage caused does not render the vehicle unrentable (such as minor scratches), many rental companies may not repair the vehicle straight away and will charge a pre-calculated estimate for the cost of the repair.

I'm glad to hear that you took photographs of the car when returning it. Hopefully, you also got a copy of the check-in form and made it clear, when paying the charge, that you were doing so under duress, with a view to making a complaint later.

Now that you're home, you should put a formal complaint in writing to the car rental company, outlining what happened and requesting the following: an itemised damage assessment by a qualified mechanic, proof that the damage was caused by you, and an itemised invoice for the actual repairs. You should also provide it with a copy of your check-in and check-out forms - and photographs. By doing this, you may be able to either dispute the entire amount or get the charge reduced.

If you don't receive a reply, or if the reply is unsatisfactory, and if the car rental company is a member of the European Car Rental Conciliation Service (ECRCS), you can submit a complaint to the body, and any decision by the ECRCS is binding on the member firm.

You can also consider seeking help from ECC Ireland (if the trader is based in another EU or EEA country), or taking court action via the European Small Claims Procedure. If you have insurance, check if the damage is covered and consider making a claim.

Missed flight leg woes

Q I was due to fly from Dublin to Paris - and then a few days later, to fly from Paris to Florence. However, I missed the outbound flight from Paris to Florence and so made alternative arrangements. When I went to check in for my return flight from Florence to Paris (that is, for the return flight on the original booking), I was told that because I hadn't turned up for the outbound flight, the entire booking was cancelled. I had to pay for another flight, which was very expensive. Can I challenge the decision? Rebecca, Co Meath

If the airline has what is known as a 'no-show' clause in its conditions of carriage, it can certainly be difficult to challenge the decision - but not impossible. Essentially, these clauses mean that if you miss an outbound flight, it's considered a no-show and you may not be able to use your return flight and/or connecting flights (if applicable). There is no refund issued to you and the airline may resell the seat.

Some airlines state in their terms and conditions that passengers must inform them if they are prevented from flying all the individual flight segments - or from flying in the sequence specified on the ticket. So, as you agree to these terms and conditions when buying your flight, if such restrictions are clearly stated, it can be hard to get a refund.

There is currently no specific legislation at EU level banning no-show clauses and so air carriers can self-regulate in their general conditions of carriage.

However, that is not to say that these conditions cannot be challenged if deemed to be unfair. Indeed, a number of national courts have found in favour of consumers. Furthermore, according to a decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union, the pricing freedom recognised for air carriers to determine air fares and the conditions under which prices apply (EU Regulation 1008/2008 on air services) do not preclude the application of EU Directive 93/13/EEC on unfair terms in consumer contracts, as transposed by the member states.

If something happens which prevents you from using an outbound flight, it may not be the case that you can book another flight at a different time/date and still avail of the return flight. It is always advisable to read the conditions - and to liaise with the airline to check if you can do this.

Baggage anomaly

Q When I flew to Spain with my family last month, our carry-on luggage was checked by ground staff on the outward flight from Dublin and all was OK. However, when ground staff at the Spanish airport checked the same luggage on the return leg, it was deemed to not comply with the baggage policy, and we were charged an excess fee running into the hundreds. It seems the baggage dimensions for this airline only allow for a width of just 35cm, whereas our luggage was 40cm. Why was the baggage OK going over, but not on the way back? Is there anything we can do to contest those charges? Joan, Co Waterford

Unfortunately, if you've failed to comply with the baggage policy and the baggage does not fit the dimensions stated, it may be very difficult to request a refund from the airline, as you agreed to the conditions of carriage when you purchased the flight.

Therefore, it is up to you to ensure you've read the conditions of carriage and check, by perhaps measuring, that the baggage being used on your journey complies.

You may consider contacting the airline in writing, seeking clarification as to why the baggage was deemed suitable for the outbound flight but not for the return journey - and to see if it would be willing to refund the fee, at least partially, as a goodwill gesture.

However, the airline is under no obligation to provide this refund if you have failed to comply with the current baggage policy.

Martina Nee is communications manager with European Consumer Centre Ireland (eccireland.ie)

Email your questions to lmcbride@independent.ie or write to 'Your Questions,  Sunday Independent Business, 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1'. 

While we will endeavour to place your questions with the most appropriate expert for your query, this column is not intended to replace professional advice.

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