By Ben Kelley
August 9, 2011
A long-standing threat to rental car customers from unrepaired defective cars – an issue that received virtually no attention until early this year – has now become the focus of a sweeping federal legislative proposal to end that threat. Thus, in a brief six months, what started as an obscure court case in California has grown into a national initiative, supported by a cross-section of consumer advocacy groups, to insure the safety of millions of people who rent cars for business or pleasure.
It started in 2004, when sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Santa Cruz, Calif. Four days later, the two young women were dead, killed in a fiery crash triggered by a defect in the car. Chrysler had recalled nearly half a million PT Cruisers a month earlier because of the defect – a design that could result in fire by causing a leakage of flammable power steering fluid onto hot engine surfaces or catalytic converters. But Enterprise had ignored the recall and rented the car three times before renting it to the sisters. The Houck family brought suit against the rental car company. In 2010, after nearly six years of stonewalling, Enterprise finally admitted in court that it was responsible for the Houck sisters’ death. It was ordered by a jury to pay damages of $15 million to the parents.