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Break-Down in Australia - Car Rental Company wants $5,000+ - what now?

Break-Down in Australia - Car Rental Company wants $5,000+ - what now?

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Old Jan 2, 07, 7:21 am
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Break-Down in Australia - Car Rental Company wants $5,000+ - what now?

A few months ago, I rented a 4WD in Australia from a local rental agency. Unfortunately, after a few days, the clutch burnt out, and the vehicle had to be recovered from a remote area.

The 4WD was in a poor condition when I rented it (a/c broken, rusty, no operating manual,...) and already had 250,000 km on the odometer.

What happened was that we got stuck in the sand on Fraser Island. It was impossible to engage the car's low range gears (as we were told to do in case of getting stuck in sand in a video shown at the rental place). So, I used the clutch to get the car out of the sand, and indeed, there was a short burning smell. A mile later or so, the car stopped working.

Now, it took a long time for a recovery team to come, and when they arrived, they broke their own car. So they had to stay overnight and only recovered the car on the next day.
Upon returning home I found a charge of $6,000 on my credit card (from a company I have never heard of). I disputed these, and today received a letter from VISA where they said that it referred to the incident with the rental car. Included were a "breach letter" to me (that I never received), and various invoices outlining the costs that came to a bit more than $5,000 (including a quote - not an invoice - for the clutch repair for $2,200 and recovery costs of almost $2000 as well as almost $1000 for loss of use although we paid for the car until 3 days after the accident).

Do I have to pay at all? I feel I was given a car that was not working properly (no low range gears), which caused it to brake down after a few days of use.

How do they know that it was me who caused most of the damage to the clutch? (They claim it was recently overhauled but I have not seen any proof)

Do you think the credit card rental car insurance would pay?

These sums look high to me (they are in Australian dollar, which is a bit weaker than the US dollar) - what do you think?

Is a quote for repair rather than an actual invoice proof of cost for their side?

Do I need to pay the increased cost of recovery that was caused by the recovery vehicle breaking down?

Would you involve a lawyer?

The lesson I learnt is not to rent a car at any non-major rental company anymore.

Thanks for any hints.

SmilingBoy.
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Old Jan 2, 07, 7:33 am
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I ran into a similar, but smaller, problem with U-Haul on a truck rental a few years ago. They rented me a piece of junk, which broke down, and they tried to charge me $900 for towing and for the wages of the drivers who drove it back. (note the conflicting lies- they both claimed they towed it and they drove it). It took about six or seven months of letters back and forth with them and Amex, but in the end that conflicting lie became blatant to Amex, who ruled in my favor and cancelled all charges.

Document EVERYTHING and be insistant with your credit card company; contact any AU agencies similar to the better business bureau, and any regulatory agencies which oversee them. You can also report the dangerous condition of the vehicle to the local department of transportation, try to get them to do a surprise insection of this companies vehicles. Documentation of their unsafe conditions will be helpful.

Best of luck, mine was a huge headache over $900 U.S., and yours is much larger.
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Old Jan 2, 07, 2:45 pm
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The QLD office of fair trading website is here:

http://www.fairtrading.qld.gov.au/oft/oftweb.nsf

That would be a useful start for you.

S
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Old Jan 2, 07, 3:01 pm
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Your liability depends entirely upon the terms of your contract. For normal car rentals, one of the clauses is that any damage that occurs if the vehicle is driven off-road, no matter how caused, is charged to you (and not covered by any damage waiver or insurance). This includes normal wear and tear -- so driving such cars off-road is a big risk. Now, I would not rent a 4WD which had such a clause in the contract when intending to go off-road in Australia ... presumably your contract does not have such a clause. If it does, you will have to pay in full, and I'm sure they can come up with invoices that match the estimate. If your contract does not have such a provision, then the law changes considerably, and negligence would have to be proved before you have a financial responsibility. From your description and my own 4WD experience I think it plausible that the egress from the sand did destroy the clutch prematurely. The recovery cost of AUD 2000 is actually on the low side, I've heard of much higher. The "loss of use" is presumably to cover the time in the shop, not the 3 days left in your rental. But again you are responsible for that only if your contract prohibited off-road use, or explicitly specified some provision that made you responsible. Good luck.
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Old Jan 2, 07, 3:33 pm
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The OP's initial error was renting the 4WD vehicle in the first place. When he saw its condition, he should have walked out. I know it is hard to do when on vacation, but sometimes you have to.

As a long time driver of 4WD vehicles, I can say that most people have little idea how to drive them. In any case sand is a bad situation to get out of even with experience.

I'm afraid the OP will have to pay and will be lucky if it is not more.
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Old Jan 2, 07, 3:43 pm
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Thanks for your responses so far. Just to clarify: The 4WD was specifically rented to drive on Fraser Island (and that's what they advertised the car for), which is a sand island (no paved roads, just sand tracks and beach).

Unfortunately, there was not much choice to walk away from the rental car as the vacation was booked and the other major car rental companies in Brisbane don't allow cars to be taken to Fraser island (and there was no other way to get there that I knew of at that time).

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Old Jan 2, 07, 3:44 pm
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I presume you are using a US credit card.

Dispute the charges in writing pursuant to the Fair Credit Billing Act. You may want to research this, a good source would be the Federal Trade Commission's website.

Be sure to send the dispute to your credit card company IN WRITING. I would send it Certified Mail - Return Receipt Requested. Make sure it is sent to the address on the back of your credit card statement for disputes. Disputing it over the phone alone is not sufficient.

I would also look at submitting this to your credit card insurance. I suggest you review the policy and procedures for submitting a claim.

With respect to Australian Law -- for a company to bill you it is my understanding they need to send you what is called a "tax invoice". Without a tax invoice, it is my understanding you are allowed to withhold an amount of the payment claimed ... but I highly suggest you do some research in this area and get the facts. Should you make a complaint with the office of fair trading, one point I would raise is that the company never bothered to provide you with a tax invoice.

When you were in Australia - after the vehicle was recovered, what kind of communication did you have with the rental car agency? I presume you either went into their office or spoke to them after the break down. Did they say anything about holding you responsible for the breakdown? Is there anything in the contract you signed about breakdowns and responsibility?

From your post, it sounds like a "3rd Party" has charged your credit card and not the actual rental agency as you said you were unfamiliar with the merchant (?).

Did you ever give your credit card details to the company that billed it? Find out what their association is with the local rental car company. It sounds dodgy to me that they're trying to hold you personally responsible for their vehicle breaking down - a vehicle that wasn't in great condition to start with and 250,000 km on it. I'm sure you weren't the first to use the clutch in such a way and the problem came about because of wear and tear over time.

I personally would continue to dispute this with your credit card as well as turn it over to your insurance to see how they want to handle it. Make sure your credit card company/bank keeps it in dispute as you don't want to damage your credit rating and make payments to your credit card for what you do owe.

When you make your dispute in writing, I would make it clear the rental vehicle broke down. State the fact that it was a heavily used vehicle with over 250,000 km on it and make your case that they are either improperly or fradulently billing you for the breakdown.

I wish you the best of luck!
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Old Jan 2, 07, 3:55 pm
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Originally Posted by SmilingBoy View Post
Thanks for your responses so far. Just to clarify: The 4WD was specifically rented to drive on Fraser Island (and that's what they advertised the car for), which is a sand island (no paved roads, just sand tracks and beach).

Unfortunately, there was not much choice to walk away from the rental car as the vacation was booked and the other major car rental companies in Brisbane don't allow cars to be taken to Fraser island (and there was no other way to get there that I knew of at that time).
Now you know why the other companies don't allow taking their cars there.

The advertised use is irrelevant, it is what your contract says that counts. I've seen contracts that prohibited the advertised use, and it might say any off-road use is at your risk. While your car might have been rusty, most Australian states have strict vehicle inspection laws (unlike the US, for example), so it is likely that the vehicle was in pretty good mechanical shape. But clutches do get burned out regularly in rental cars, for a variety of reasons, and charging the next driver is not usually done. My Toyota 4WD still has the original clutch, at 300K km and 10 years old (Toyota uses a particularly beefy clutch system, quite a bit more rugged than Jeep for example). But it has been babied, while rentals are not.
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Old Jan 2, 07, 4:01 pm
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The car was rented using a German Lufthansa VISA card, but I assume that there are similar laws as in the US.

I never heard back from the rental company after they recovered the car, I never went back into their office, which was in a different city many hundred miles away after all. When I phoned them to notify them of the breakdown they mentioned that I may have been in breach of contract but nothing else.

The reason for disputing the charge was initially that I did not know the company that charged me (never signed anything to them).

From VISA, I then received a letter today stating that they have receipts and because I agreed to pay for all costs in the agreement there is nothing they can do and I have to take it up with the car rental company directly. VISA sent a copy of the letter that the car rental company apparently sent to me (but I assume which was only drawn up once they got a letter from VISA) detailing the charges (but only one tax invoice was part of their receipts, another one was a quote for repair, and other parts of their claims were not substantiated). The letter also stated that a refund has been authorized for the difference between the actual cost and what they took from my credit card. This refund hasn't appeared on my card either.

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Old Jan 2, 07, 4:01 pm
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Fraiser Island is all sand, so the rental would specifically be for "off-road" use.

I'm sure the OP's use of the clutch played a role, but I suspect the OP wasn't the first and it's had its share of wear and tear.

The big question is what specifically does the rental contact state.

I would encourage the OP to dispute this. Worst case scenario if the OP is held responsible in some form per the contract, it's of my opinion the OP's liability should be limited to a depreciated value based on wear and tear of use by previous renters.

Last but not least, I have heard of one other outfit (in another part of Australia) that does off-road rentals where many overseas "customers" have encountered similar issues based on several second hand accounts.
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Old Jan 3, 07, 12:21 am
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SmilingBoy, I wish you the best, and I have a feeling things will be resolved in your favor. I'm just curious, after this whole thing happened, did you think there would be additional charges from the rental company?
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Old Jan 3, 07, 12:32 am
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Originally Posted by SDF_Traveler View Post
Fraiser Island is all sand, so the rental would specifically be for "off-road" use.
I seem to remember, though, that the main beach along Fraser Island is designated as a national highway. Would this still count as 'off-road'?
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Old Jan 3, 07, 10:09 pm
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the main beach along Fraser Island is designated as a national highway. Would this still count as 'off-road'?
This may not assist you too much but I work for National Parks in QLD and most of Fraser Is is NP to High Water Mark. There is another designation over the island as a "Recreation Area" to Low Water Mark. This means that if you're driving/ploughing your 4WD on the beaches above HWM - you're in the NP, and between HWM and LWM you are on an area designated as a road and enforced thankfully by the QLD Police as such. Heaps of injuries occur every year by inexperienced 4Wdrivers coming to grief on the long beaches.

I'm aware of many operators of 4WD hire vehicles at Hervey Bay who provide old Land Rovers to cater for the casual visitors to the Island (eg:backpackers). It comes back to a case of buyer beware for ANY rental 4WD as Fraser Is. is not a place for tyro's.

Good luck with your claim.
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Old Jan 4, 07, 7:34 am
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tyro? What does that mean?
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Old Jan 4, 07, 7:41 am
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Bad news.
I re-read what I signed and it actually states that I am responsible for any damage to a clutch due to burning it out. This statement was hidden in the bullet regarding the charge for re-fuelling.

How can this be reasonable? While I may have contributed to the clutch burning out, it is entirely possible that the clutch was already severely damaged before I got the car. And of course, there is no way that I could have checked for previous damage to the clutch.

Do you think there is a chance that a clause like this on an annex to a contract may be deemed non-enforcable?

SmilingBoy.
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