Car accident and uninsured, complicated situation. What to do?
January 14, 2012 2:45 AM   Subscribe

Got in a car accident two years; car rental, uninsured. Complicated situation, car rental company wants $35K from me. What to do?

When I rented a car in California two years ago, I got in an accident with another vehicle. To keep it simple and sweet, I came to a full stop at a 3-way intersection stop sign (a small road going into a main street). I looked both ways to make sure no incoming traffic was coming, then made a left turn. Out of the blue, a SUV/van came barreling into me. Luckily (very), the van hit the back door on the driver's side... barely avoiding hitting me directly. The damage to my car rental was pretty bad, although not too bad. I wasn't physically harmed, just shaken up and had a few minor bruises. The back door was totaled, and a tire blew out, I believe. The car had to be towed away to the local car rental office, where I did an exchange. The SUV sustained very little damage, other than the front bumper being bent.

I got legal representation (gratis) through my father's friend, who helped me dissect the situation and contacted the necessary people. The couple on the other end of the accident were claiming serious injuries and damage to their car, and my lawyer helped make the necessary communication. Time passed, and after about 2 months after the accident, I stopped hearing from everyone involved (the car rental claims representative and my lawyer). My lawyer instructed me to contact him if any followup information or contact was initiated. Well, more than 1 1/2 years passed until I got a letter from the car rental company, asking for $35,000 ($15 thousand each for injuries; $5 thousand for the car damage done to the other SUV). My lawyer wrote a letter on my behalf, and the car rental company insisted that I pay in full or they would pursue further collection. I drafted an email to my lawyer, explaining my points and why I felt the whole situation was not working in my favor, and he bailed out. He said he felt the situation was no longer in his area of expertise, so now I'm on my own.

Some facts to clarify the situation:

a. I had a Loss Damage Waiver on my rental, which allowed me peace of mind if any damage was done to my car. Obviously, the car being damaged resulted in a loss, and I was not held responsible for this.

b. I did not select the added liability insurance at the time; nor did I have any car insurance of my own. I did not select this, because the signage was not clear that California was exempted from being protected by the state minimums. All other states have minimums and require car rental companies to cover up to the state minimum, but California did not. That means I am on my own here in California. At the time, on the website (and still is), I was given the impression that California was covered. I want so badly to share the link, believe me, but I do not want this to be used against me, so I have to refrain from using the car rental company's name and thus providing a link to their website, but it is a major rental company, one of the top ones actually.

c. I am Deaf, which obviously is not an excuse of any kind. However, I was not verbally communicated my opinions to be insured, and if California did not require any mandatory minimum coverage, they should have communicated that to me. Signage was present, but nothing that could be seen that clearly stated California was not covered for liability insurance. Therefore, I believe the burden lies on the car rental company in this situation, due to the miscommunication. I understand it takes time to communicate with a Deaf customer, but again, the burden is on them to ensure customers are clear about their options, regardless of any disabilities.

d. The police report states that the couple involved refused medical at the scene. They, in fact, drove away. One of the two persons involved on the other end of the accident claimed a hurt arm, but the other person claimed no injuries. It's right there on the police report.

So, at this point, the car rental claims/collections department wants $35,000, which is IMPOSSIBLE for me to pay, and my (now former) lawyer's letter asking them to forgo collecting any money from me and explaining my disability did not do any good. Now that I am not represented anymore, and I have no assets (already explained to the car rental company), I have no idea what to do. I do not have income, and this whole situation rubs me the wrong way. I understand accepting responsibility, but in this situation, I really feel I have been backed up in a corner with no recourse.

I'm hoping to get some advice on how to move forward, along with insights. I know the obvious advice is to get legal representation, which I am considering doing, but it is expensive and would provide a difficulty for me. I also am living in the East coast in addition to having family in the West coast where I visit, so the whole situation is complicated. (My former lawyer is based where my family lives, and the accident, obviously, happened in California.) I am thinking of pushing the issue up to the management of the car rental company, or even contacting a consumer advocate, as it is bad PR for a car rental company to try and take $35,000 from a Deaf customer who was misled about his situation and his options.

I also wanted to clarify that I do not expect legal advice, and any advice offered here will not be constructed by me as legal advice, so feel free to give any advice you can without worrying about me "taking it the wrong way."

This has been really hard for me, and I hope to get some good solid advice other than getting legal representation. I hope my ideas are good as well.

Thanks for your time!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A lawyer might be expensive, but NO lawyer will be MORE expensive. Do not communicate with the rental company, the insurance agency or anyone else: Get A Lawyer Now. Sorry, but there just isn't any other answer.
posted by easily confused at 2:53 AM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your rental company settled with the SUV driver and passenger or their insurance company? If they claim you are the one liable, why were they acting on your behalf with no incentive to negotiate lower since they seem to claim to you to be just a pass through?

You need an attorney to either square your rental company away as to why you are not liable here for their settlement or to help file for bankruptcy. I am not an attorney nor your attorney nor the attorney my mom wanted me to be, but I don't see how they could settle this without discussing with you and it seems to me that when your attorney discusses this with them and points out that you are broke and either will be filing or are willing to settle for pennies on the dollar, they might settle.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:11 AM on January 14, 2012

It doesn't sound like you have the resources to fight this. This is the sort of thing bankruptcy is good for.
posted by jayder at 4:06 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't declare bankruptcy without pursuing legal advice for. There is only one answer here, and that's to hire a lawyer; it might suck, but without one, you're going to be hurting financially, more so than the cost of the lawyer.

Also, you need to anonymize this post ASAP, stop talking to the insurance company immediately, and keep quiet about the details to everyone but your lawyer.
posted by ellF at 4:36 AM on January 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Don't declare bankruptcy without pursuing legal advice first.".
posted by ellF at 4:39 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

About hiring a lawyer:

Can your father's friend recommend anyone? The question I ask is "if you were in this situation, who would YOU want handling your case?"

Most reputable attorneys will be willing to have an initial consultation for free where they will outline what they can do for you (without making promises about outcome) and detail the potential costs involved.

Also, there may be legal aid services available to you. The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles might be able to help you, or direct you to someone who can.

About the statute of limitations, generally:

The law limits the amount of time anyone can wait to act on a claim. California assuredly has a such a limit, but I don't know what that is. At some point, any potential plaintiff will have to file suit or lose their right to collect.

About litigation, generally:

Anyone can ask anyone to pay them money (with some exceptions, like blackmail and fraud). Sending a letter and hoping someone pays is quite a lot easier and than going to court. Convincing a defendant (especially an unrepresented one) to pay is frequently easier than establishing a right to collect in court.

It is the plaintiff who must bring the case. It is the plaintiff who has the brunt of staying within the statute of limitations. The defendant must assuredly respond--and frequently incur costs doing so. But the defendant must go through a cost-benefit analysis: is there any benefit for me doing anything now? Will the defendant be better off spending money (or time or effort or "psychological aggravation") RIGHT NOW, or is it better to leave the ball in the plaintiff's court?

Those are some very general points that you (preferably with the guidance of a lawyer) can apply to your situation.
posted by GPF at 4:43 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, you need to anonymize this post ASAP, stop talking to the insurance company immediately, and keep quiet about the details to everyone but your lawyer.

posted by GPF at 4:44 AM on January 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am thinking of pushing the issue up to the management of the car rental company, or even contacting a consumer advocate, as it is bad PR for a car rental company to try and take $35,000 from a Deaf customer who was misled about his situation and his options

I don't think you will get very far pushing the Deaf angle. It doesn't sound to me like there was a miscommunication or that you were misled or treated any differently than a hearing customer (they don't spend much time explaining the legal details to anyone, the signage is pretty much the extent of it).

A lawyer may be able to make your case more convincingly than you have here.
posted by ook at 4:51 AM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It would appear you have three options:
1) Hire an attorney--from some of the info. in the post it appears you may not be able to afford this. You should still consult an attorney and get an estimate of the cost to defend/represent you.
2) Ignore it and hope it goes away or they offer a settlement figure. A judgement against you will not go away and will effect your credit into the indefinite future. Depending on your personal and financial goals this may or may not be a problem.
3) Directly contact the claims department an offer a settlement and a payment plan over X years. They may accept or just write it off and sell the debt to a collection agency--you could do the same with them.

I do not see any way to proceed with out significant negative consequences for you. I think advice beyond this point is dependent on a more thorough knowledge of your present financial condition, earning potential, future reliance on credit/loans etc.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:12 AM on January 14, 2012

Your first attorney did a very very poor job. Your reasons for why you're not liable don't count, btw! A good lawyer will have other, better reasons to get you out of this mess.

Get a good lawyer licensed in CA.

The only thing you should bring doing on metafilter is asking for referrals to a very good lawyer!

I think there is good reason to believe you are not legally required to reimburse this company, I'm in CA, had accident in a rental car without insurance, blah blah LAWYER.

You need a lawyer. So much easier than wringing your hands or declaring bankruptcy.

posted by jbenben at 5:38 AM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

The OP's story does not make any sense. A claim for damages would be presented as a lawsuit by the claimant, not as a letter from the rental car company demanding payment for injuries. Perhaps the occupants of the SUV sued the rental car company (as owner of the vehicle) and that the rental car company paid them (as a settlement?) and now wants reimbursement. If such a lawsuit had been filed, it would have tried to contact the OP, but maybe did not have accurate contact information.

OP needs to consult legal counsel.
posted by megatherium at 6:09 AM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming the rental car contract made the OP liable for any charges incurred by the rental car company? Just because the rental car company wrote it into the contract doesn't mean it's legally binding. Nthing get a lawyer. yesterday.
posted by COD at 6:36 AM on January 14, 2012

jbenben -- the OP's lawyer did not necessarily do a poor job. We can be sure, at least, that OP got what he paid for. But whether it was a bad job or not, there's not enough information here for us to know.
posted by jayder at 7:14 AM on January 14, 2012

You need someone to find out what's going on and deal with it. That's kind of what lawyers do.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:35 AM on January 14, 2012

Nthing the necessity of having this handled by counsel.

And there is an important, important lesson here that readers of this question in the future may want to know.

SO many people think that signing the LDW and paying $12 a day or whatever indemnifies you against damage done to other parties. Many others think the "car rental coverage" on their major credit card does the same.

So wrong. Those things *only* cover the car you rent. They cover no medical costs for anyone, and no property damage to anything but the car you rent, which is the most predictable and minor element of liability you incur in any serious accident.

You must either have your own car insurance (and make sure it covers you to reasonably robust limits in all rental situations -- many policies, for example, don't apply to rental trucks) or you must have a personal liability policy, or at a minimum you must pay the $12 or whatever a day for the rental company's minimal liability insurance (usually $100K, enough for most modest accidents, but hardly a perfect shield if you have any assets). It is far, far more important to have this insurance than to have the LDW/credit card coverage on your rental vehicle, unless you rent expensive cars maybe. I can handle a $20K loss if I total the average car I rent (and I'm covered for that by my credit cards anyway). A lot harder handling $100K in medical bills or someone's totaled Audi.
posted by spitbull at 9:58 AM on January 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, you need to anonymize this post ASAP, stop talking to the insurance company immediately, and keep quiet about the details to everyone but your lawyer.

Yes, a thousand times. In order to make this question anonymous, contact the moderators if you haven't already (there's a contact link in the lower right corner of the page) and ask them to remove your screen name. Once they've anonymized your post, in order to answer or comment in this thread you'll need to contact the moderators again, and they can post your response for you.
posted by scody at 11:34 AM on January 14, 2012

Do you think the OP should go ahead and fight this using consumerist venues, or talking to the CEO of the company? That may be something I would do, because sometimes bad PR to a company would make them realize they need to back off.
posted by dubious_dude at 1:09 PM on January 14, 2012

The OP should not talk to the CEO of the company. The OP should consult with another lawyer.
posted by scody at 1:14 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you think the OP should go ahead and fight this using consumerist venues, or talking to the CEO of the company? That may be something I would do

Definitely not.
posted by jayder at 1:49 PM on January 14, 2012

jayder: Why shouldn't the OP explore this? In the past, people used consumerist venues to complain about how companies were treating them unfairly, demanding a lot of money from them, and so forth... a perfect example of this would be on
posted by dubious_dude at 1:57 PM on January 14, 2012

I think that's a bad idea, dubious_dude. First, the CEO of a major auto rental company is not going to talk to the OP. Second, the OP is likely to say something stupid. Third, speaking with the CEO would not be the most effective way to make the company afraid of bad PR.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:05 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consumerist venues aren't likely to do any good here since -- based on the information here -- the OP wasn't treated unfairly; he signed the same contract anyone does when declining insurance coverage.

Writing directly to the CEO will at best be ignored, at worst will end up inadvertently revealing information to the rental company that harms the OP's case.

The OP needs a lawyer. There is really no way around this.
posted by ook at 3:39 PM on January 14, 2012

I agree that you need a good lawyer, in California. It sounds like you live elsewhere. So, and additional answerers, how does this person find a good lawyer in CA who can work effectively with a deaf client who has limited funds? (Lawyers are required to accommodate the needs of the deaf, but questioner doesn't need another fight.)

Meanwhile, this is very distressing. 35,000 is a lot of money, but they aren't going to come to your door and take your dog, kids, etc. Take it a step at a time, and get good help, and there is likely to be a better resolution.
posted by theora55 at 10:23 PM on January 14, 2012

jbenben - you have a very interesting point of view. It seems like you were in a similar situation to the OP. I would suggest sharing your lawyers' information (such as website and cost) here, so the OP can have access to the information. I think that would help him (or her) greatly.
posted by dubious_dude at 3:10 AM on January 15, 2012

Contact info sent to OP via memail!
posted by jbenben at 6:52 PM on January 15, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks everyone, for the advice so far. Lawyer it is, I'm venturing. Any referrals would be greatly appreciated!
posted by taz (staff) at 2:21 AM on January 17, 2012

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