He wasn't at fault when a rental car hit him, but he's stuck still with the bill

Little-known law protects rental companies from paying damages in certain cases

By Layron Livingston - Reporter

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - Dennis Baxter tells the Leave it to Layron team he was on his way to visit a friend, back on May 16.

He lives in the Richmond Heights area in southwest Miami-Dade County, and made a right turn onto Southwest 152nd Street from Southwest 112th Avenue. Baxter did not get far.

A woman driving a silver Chevy Impala pulled out of a nearby shopping center. The camera attached to the rear-view mirror of Baxter's pickup recorded the beginnings of the saga-to-be.

It showed the Impala merging from the far right lane into the center lane. The driver merged again, from the center lane, into the far left lane -- right into the side of Baxter's truck. 

"They told the cop, I was wrong!" Baxter said. "If I didn't have the camera, I would be stuck."

Troopers cited the driver of the Impala for "improper change of lane." She was also cited for driving with a suspended license.

For Baxter, things would only get stickier. The Impala was a rental car, and according to a letter Baxter received from the rental company, "The driver of the rental during the accident was not the person who rented the vehicle, nor were they listed as an additional driver."  

"I need to get my vehicle fixed," Baxter said. "Someone is responsible."

Baxter said his 2002 Toyota Tundra is insured, but he hasn't carried full-coverage on pickup in years.  

Since then, it's been back and forth with his rental company.

"It was their vehicle," Baxter said. "I asked them for the name of the person who rented the car, and they refused to give it to me. I've tried to get in touch with the rental car company, and they refuse to pay."

And under federal law, the rental company doesn't have to pay.

In 2005, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

The spending bill also contained an amendment sponsored by Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. What is now known as the Graves Amendment carved out an exception for car rental companies -- simply put, states, including Florida could no-longer make rental car companies liable for damages in crashes where their cars are involved unless the rental car company, itself, was negligent in some way.

"Many states, including Florida, have what is called the dangerous instrumentality doctrine," said Nova Southeastern University law professor, Michael Flynn. 

Take this scenario: You loan your car to your neighbor, and your neighbor causes an accident while driving your car. If your neighbor does not have insurance, the other driver who was involved in the crash could seek damages from you because it was your car that your neighbor was driving. Your car is the "dangerous instrumentality."

But if the driver of a rental car hits another driver, "the rental car company escapes liability unless you can actually prove that the rental car company did something negligent." Flynn said. The Graves Amendment protects rental car companies.

Flynn said when rental cars are involved, injured drivers could potentially seek damages from the driver of the rented car, or the person who rented the car. 

Baxter consulted with an attorney, and is working to find out who rented the car that was involved in his crash, in hopes of getting the repairs made to his truck.

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