Usually, the driver who’s at fault in a car accident is the one held liable for damages. But if you’re injured by a person driving a rental car, it’s possible that the rental car company could bear at least some responsibility.

About a decade ago, Congress passed a law known as the Graves Amendment, which declared that rental car companies could not be held liable for the negligence of a customer driving one of their cars. That doesn’t necessarily let them off the hook, however, if the rental car company’s own acts of negligence contributed to the accident.

A rental car company’s negligence could be relevant in a few different ways. For example, a car rental company could be sued for renting a car to a person that they knew or should have known was an unsafe driver — a concept known as negligent entrustment. But the standards of care to which the rental companies are held vary greatly from state to state.

In a 2010 case, a California court said that a car company couldn’t be held liable for renting to a driver with two DWI arrests. The driver presented the company with a valid driver’s license, and California state law does not require rental companies to check a customer’s driving history. Also, the court noted that the driver did not appear unfit or impaired at the time of the rental.

In another 2010 case in New York state, however, the court ruled that an injured plaintiff could proceed with a case against a company that rented a car to a driver who presented what he said was an Israeli driver’s license. The purported license, written in Hebrew and without a photo, later turned out to be invalid.

Both these cases show that, while it’s by no means easy to hold a car rental company accountable for negligent entrustment, they still have some duty toward other drivers on the road. And, as technology makes it easier to instantaneously check driving records, it’s quite possible that courts could begin holding rental companies to a higher standard.

The Graves Amendment also doesn’t protect rental car companies if they are negligent in the maintenance of their vehicles. For example, if a rental car company failed to properly maintain a car’s braking system, and that faulty braking system led to a crash, both the driver and other victims could have a case against them. Recently, Congress affirmed that rental companies have an obligation to keep their cars in good working order, with a new federal law that requires them to repair problems with vehicles that are the subject of manufacturers’ recalls before renting them.

It’s very easy to rent a car these days. Rental car companies tout their ability to get customers behind the wheel quickly, allowing them to avoid the service counter by offering registration through airport kiosks and mobile phone apps. But in the rush to offer fast, convenient service, are the rental companies being careful enough about who they rent to? And, are they cutting corners on fleet maintenance?

Driver screening and car maintenance practices vary from company to company. And, even with strong screening and maintenance procedures in place, there’s no guarantee that every employee will follow them.

So if you’re involved in a car accident with a person who’s driving a rental car, don’t assume that the rental car company has no liability. Talk to an attorney about how to find out if the rental car company was negligent in its actions, and whether you have a right to compensation because of it. A member of the Sommers Schwartz Personal Injury Group would be happy to discuss your situation.

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Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller

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Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller

Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller represents injury victims in personal injury and medical malpractice claims. She also represents individuals in cases against those who have committed horrific acts of sexual assault.

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