Profits Over People – The Willful Ignorance of Florida Car Rental Companies

It is unlawful for any person whose driver’s license has been suspended to operate a vehicle upon the streets and highways of Florida. Florida Statute 322.34. In addition, any vehicle owner who knowingly allows a person with a suspended license to operate his/her vehicle in Florida commits a misdemeanor of the second degree. 322.36. (Since Florida Statute 322.38, which addresses the minimum duty owed by rental agencies, uses the word “person” in reference to an owner who rents his/her vehicle, the use of the word “person” in 322.36 makes its provisions applicable to rental agencies.)

We are currently involved in litigation against Enterprise Leasing Company of Florida, LLC (Miami-Dade County case number 08-80070 CA 23), for catastrophic injuries caused by the renter of one of its vehicles in a highway roll-over accident. When Enterprise allowed the renter to drive its vehicle off its lot, his Florida license was under suspension for moving violations.

Enterprise’s defense is that it did not know or have a duty to determine if the renter’s license was suspended. Interestingly, an Enterprise representative testified in deposition that, had the company known [of the suspension], it would have been negligence on its part to entrust its vehicle to the renter. We have asserted that Enterprise had a duty to limit the risk to our client, which included making an effort to determine, at a minimum, the status of its renter’s Florida license. In a Motion for Summary Judgment, Enterprise asked the court to decide the issue. The court denied Enterprise’s motion, allowing us to proceed with our case.

Since 1999, Florida driver license status records have been searchable through the Internet by DL number or name/date-of-birth/sex, making status information available in a matter of seconds. Enterprise did not perform this simple and fast search in our case. Had it done so, it would have learned of the suspended license, which was registered in the database since 2006, some two years before our accident. (By the way, Enterprise’s customer, who did not have a valid credit card, paid cash to rent the vehicle.)

Was this a case of willful ignorance to avoid the chance of turning away a paying customer?

For many years, numerous car rental companies had been using databases to screen driving records of potential renters. See articles #1 and #2. (It is estimated that 6-10% of potential renters are denied by the screening process. The reasons for the denials vary from suspended licenses to poor driving records.) However, among the major car rental companies, Enterprise was an exception to that policy.

Sadly, the pack may soon, if not already, be following Enterprise’s lead.

In 2005, Congress passed what is popularly known as the Graves Amendment. This law provides that rental agencies nationwide can no longer be held liable under any state law for personal injuries caused by their vehicles by virtue of vehicle ownership alone. In Florida, this has eliminated application of the long standing “Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine” against rental car companies. See this blog. (It should be noted that the Graves Amendment is being challenged in courts throughout the nation and unless abolished by Congress – which is unlikely with a Republican House of Representatives – the issue will probably end up before the United States Supreme Court. It should also be pointed out that as against individuals and other types of companies, the Dangerous Instrumentalilty Doctrine continues to apply.) This reduced exposure has, in turn, led rental companies to be less selective about whom they are willing to rent their vehicles. This is not a good trend.

The car rental industry is a multi-billion dollar sector of the US economy, averaging more than 18.5 billion in revenue a year. There are more than 2 million rental vehicles that service the US segment of the market. Is it asking too much to expect some basic level of accountability on the part of rental agencies, like performing a simple and inexpensive background check?

Back to our case: Enterprise has vowed to appeal the trial court’s decision regarding the duty to investigate.

************************************************

Contact us at 866-785-GALE or by email to learn your legal rights.

Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.