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Congressional bill targets companies for renting out recalled vehicles

March 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Last year Eyewitness News found several used-car dealers selling cars with safety recalls that had not been fixed. In a continuing investigation, rental-car companies have been continuing to rent out cars with unrepaired safety recalls or without basic safety equipment. This week, congressional legislation is in the works to stop the practice and help protect you and your family the next time you rent a car.

Gloria Levesque was on a family vacation when the rented Ford Expedition she was riding in rolled over, crushing the roof.

At the time Levesque was a schoolteacher with one of the Montessori schools. Today she can no longer work.

"I ended up having a spinal cord injury, and I'm partially paralyzed," said Levesque.

The rental vehicle was not equipped with optional electronic stability control. Had it been installed and working properly, electronic stability control (ESC) could have prevented the rollover.

According to attorney Brian Chase, who settled Levesque's lawsuit against Ford Motor Company and the rental-car company Enterprise, ESC could have been purchased for just a few hundred dollars.

"If they can ... rent a car rather without seatbelts, and seatbelts were an optional item, they'd do that," said Chase. "There's no other explanation other than they make money buying cars cheaper. Cars are cheaper without safety items."

Cally Houck's two daughters, Raechel, 24, and Jacqueline, 20, rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. At the time the vehicle was under a safety recall for a power-steering problem, but it had not been fixed. In fact, it had been rented at least three times before the Houck sisters got it. Near Santa Cruz, the power-steering fluid leaked and then ignited.

"The car caught fire, Raechel lost her ability to control the car, it plowed into an 18-wheeler and burst into a ball of flames on impact," said Cally Houck. "Raechel and Jaquie were gone immediately."

In a lawsuit, Enterprise admitted liability and Houck was awarded $15 million in damages, which she says is nothing compared to losing her daughters.

Unlike car dealers who are required by federal law not to sell any vehicles under a safety recall until fixed, rental-car companies, the single largest purchaser of new vehicles and the single largest source of used cars, have no such requirement.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill to require the rental-car industry to follow the same rules as car dealers.

In a committee meeting on the subject Boxer said, "A former Enterprise manager in San Francisco testified in a deposition. This is what he said: 'When demand called, we rented out recalled vehicles. If all you have are recalled vehicles on the lot, you rent them out. It was a given.' For me, it is a no-brainer, and I hope we can resolve it."

Hertz Rent-a-Car agrees with Boxer and is backing the Senate bill. But privately owned Enterprise, which also owns Alamo and National rental car companies and is the largest rental car company in the country, is not in favor of the bill at all.

Enterprise's website says: "We maintain a team of senior executives to review recalls when the manufacturer recommends an interim measure. From time to time, we may elect to use that interim solution to avoid stranding many travelers for no reason."

Eyewitness News did try to get an on-camera interview with Enterprise, but the company declined, and sent a statement instead: "Today, our customers can rest assured that we have the operating procedures and policies in place to ensure that the vehicles they rent from us are properly maintained and meet the highest standards for safety."

"When you rent a car you are putting your trust in that company, that vehicle, and you life and your family's lives," said Gloria Levesque.

"I miss them every day, and I have vowed that they won't be forgotten, and they certainly will not be relegated to a statistic," said Cally Houck.

The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2011 bill is expected to be voted on in the Senate Commerce Committee this week.

Meantime, experts say before you rent a car, ask the agent if the car has been recalled and has been fixed. Also, check to see what safety equipment is on the vehicle.