Personal Injury

Rental Car Accidents

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
You rented a car, and now you've been in an accident. Whose insurance covers the crash, and how is a personal injury claim likely to play out?

Renting a car isn't something most people do on a regular basis. But there can be a greater risk for accidents to happen on the occasions when you do rent a car, since you're usually unfamiliar with both the vehicle you're driving and the area where you're driving. If you do end up getting into an accident while driving a rented vehicle, the personal injury claim landscape doesn't look all that different when compared to any other car accident, but there are a few unique issues to keep in mind.

After a Car Accident in a Rental Car

If you’ve been in an accident in a rented vehicle, a lot of the steps you should take immediately afterward are the same as those you would take after a crash in your own vehicle. Get medical attention for anyone who seems to have suffered even minor injuries. Call law enforcement and report the accident (keeping in mind that they may or may not come to the scene), exchange insurance and contact information with everyone involved, and get the names of any witnesses who saw what happened. Learn more about What to Do After a Car Accident.

But since the vehicle you’re driving is owned by the rental car company, you need to let them know about the accident too. Check your rental documents for instructions about reporting the accident and/or getting roadside assistance. Whatever instructions you receive from a representative of the rental car company, make sure you follow them to the letter, otherwise you could find yourself on the hook for damage to the vehicle.

How Insurance Affects a Rental Car Accident

A lot of drivers assume that their own car insurance policy will provide coverage in the event that they get into an accident while driving a rented car. But it’s important to make sure that’s actually the case. Check the details of your policy to make sure rental car coverage is not specifically excluded, and make sure you’ve got adequate coverage in place.

It’s also important to distinguish between two different types of coverage: liability coverage will pay for injuries you cause to anyone else in a car accident, as well as vehicle damage you cause via a crash (up to the limits of your policy). Collision coverage will apply to damage you cause to your own vehicle, meaning it covers the cost to get the car fixed or replaced (again, up to the coverage limits).

Learn more about The Role of Insurance in a Personal Injury Case.

What is a “Collision Damage Waiver”?

The rental car company will ask you if you have your own car insurance, and regardless of how you answer, they will offer you something called a “collision damage waiver” (or something similarly-named), at an additional charge, of course.

The collision damage waiver only applies to damage done to the rental car, and it essentially shifts most costs of repairing or replacing the vehicle off of you and onto the rental car company. But it does not apply at all to injuries to another driver or passenger if you cause an accident, and it may overlap with coverage you already have (whether through your own insurance policy or through the credit card you used to secure the rental car reservation, for example.)

When the Rental Car Company May Be Liable for Your Accident

It’s also important to keep in mind that in the vast majority of car accident scenarios, the rental car company itself will not be liable. Fault will come down to things that you and/or the other driver did (or failed to do) in the moments leading up to the accident. Another way of putting this is to say that, if a personal injury lawsuit is filed over the accident, the rental car company will usually not be a party.

There are a few rare exceptions to this general rule. The rental car company may bear some or all legal responsible for the accident if it can be shown that the company failed to properly maintain the vehicle, or knew about some dangerous defect associated with the vehicle, and one of those factors played a role in the accident.

For example, let’s say the rental car’s ABS braking system is malfunctioning, and you were unable to stop the vehicle within a reasonable distance despite the fact that you braked in a safe manner. If it can be shown that the failure of the vehicle’s ABS system caused or contributed to your accident, then the rental car company could be liable for the crash.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • How can I find out whether my own car insurance policy covers my rental car accident?
  • I told the car rental company that I have my own insurance coverage, but that isn't true. How will this affect my case?
  • I believe the car I rented had a defect and that caused my accident. How can I get an inspection of the car?
Learn more about Why It's Important to Have a Personal Injury Attorney and get tips on Working With Your Personal Injury Lawyer.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2016 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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