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While driving a rental car recently (rented and driven in Florida), I rubbed a traffic camera the wrong way and received a fine.

I was only told about the fine in a letter weeks after returning the car. When I reviewed the evidence (the video and images) I became convinced that I did nothing wrong and that the camera was overzealous and should not have issued a ticket in this case.

Even though I wanted to fight the fine, the rental car company still billed me for the amount, and the city which issued the ticket said the case was closed and cannot be reopened because the fine had been paid.

I confronted the company and demanded a refund of the fine amount because I never had the chance to fight it. The rental company says that in the contract, I agree to be responsible for any fines and therefore gave up my right to fight it.

Is it legal for car rental companies to slip in Terms and Conditions that force customers to give up basic rights?

7
  • read your ToS, you might have agreed to them paying fines and reimbursing them.
    – Trish
    Apr 7 at 19:20
  • The agreement says that I agree to be "responsible" for any fines issued against the vehicle. In my understanding, that should mean I receive the fine and have the ability to fight it if I choose. I did not consent to a potentially unlimited amount of fines
    – raphimtl
    Apr 7 at 20:07
  • 4
    How can a speed camera be overzealous? Radar reflections are not renowned for their passion and fervour.
    – Rock Ape
    Apr 7 at 21:47
  • It was a red light camera that I believe should not have issued a ticket in the circumstance
    – raphimtl
    Apr 7 at 23:17
  • what circumstances? you crossed the line while it was red, if it was a red light camera.
    – Trish
    Apr 8 at 19:21
6

I happen to have a recent American major rental brand folio with terms and conditions on the floor next to me. The key sentences for this brand are

You agree we may, in our sole discretion, pay all tickets, citations, fines and penalties on your behalf directly to the appropriate authority and you will pay us for what we paid to the appropriate authority or their designated agents plus a reasonable administrative fee

and

You agree to indemnify and hold us harmless for any tickets, citations, fines, penalties and administrative fees

First, as this is printed in the mass-printed jacket they put the rental agreement printout into at the desk, it's stretching things to say this is "slipped in".

Second, they are a commercial enterprise interested in profitable operations to keep their cars generating revenue. It makes commercial and equitable sense that they would want to protect themselves from fines that could accrue to the car's title; to have a business process that closes out risk to their title or having their cars booted or towed due to unpaid tickets at some point; and to not have a business process that commits labor hours to appealing tickets or assisting you in appealing tickets.

Third, by this example, the renter has directly granted the rental company agency to pay tickets, fines and penalties on the renter's behalf.

Whether other rental companies would use the same language or not or negotiate with you to adopt your language is a commercial decision. What is the exact language your rental company used?

5
  • I don’t feel like this hits the core of the question. You disagree with the claim that it wasn’t disclosed well enough, and you are right to do so. But isn’t the more important question whether a company is allowed to deny you your opportunity to fight something that could affect your record, insurance, and license?
    – SegNerd
    Apr 11 at 1:44
  • @SegNerd is that a real issue? A truly egregious moving violation that risks points would be issued in person to a driver after being pulled over by a LEO. The kinds of tickets sent to the registered owner (red light camera and parking tickets) do not, at least in Florida. Nevertheless OP is not specific about their contractual terms. Maybe their agreement is different than mine.
    – user662852
    Apr 11 at 2:18
  • @SegNerd it's $158, no points, in FL leg.state.fl.us/statutes/…
    – user662852
    Apr 11 at 2:23
  • 1
    It’s a question of principle. It probably wouldn’t work if the rental company had you sign an agreement that said “If you are accused of murder during the rental period, you agree to plead guilty no matter what.” This is not nearly as serious, but isn’t it still technically a criminal matter?
    – SegNerd
    Apr 11 at 22:46
  • @SegNerd "Technically" (your term) red light camera tickets are civil citations and fines, not criminal charges. "Under Florida statutes, a civil infraction is a case in which a person is suspected of committing a non-criminal traffic infraction. ... These violations are not punishable by incarceration and there is no right to trial by jury or to court-appointed counsel. " from this FL county page: miami-dadeclerk.com/clerk/civil-traffic-infractions.page
    – user662852
    Apr 12 at 13:48
5

What do you mean “slip in”?

Are you saying that the term wasn’t there when you signed the contract and the added it later? If so, no they can’t.

However, what I think you’re saying is that it was there all along, you didn’t read it, but you signed it anyway? If so, yes they can.

You were told this was a term of the contract (not reading it is on you, not them) and it’s not an illegal term so, when you signed it, you agreed that they could act as your agent with respect to admitting liability and paying the fine.

The only way this term would be disqualified is if it was unconscionable (under common law) or unfair (in jurisdictions where consumer law raises the bar). This is neither. It requires the consumer to pay the fines that they incur while using the company’s car - which is self-evidently fair. And to waive their rights to defend those which, in the context of the balance between the relatively small number of customers who incur automated fines (if you get pulled over and ticketed, the issue doesn’t arise), the relatively few who would contest them and the vanishingly small number who would be successful and the administrative burden this places on the hirer verses the value of the use of the car - this is definitely not unconscionable and is probably fair. Of course, you have the right to take the car company to court and make your argument that the term is unconscionable or unfair (if your jurisdiction supports this).

Not only is this legal, it is standard practice with every hire car company for fines that don’t require naming the driver. Some jurisdictions have a points system on the driver’s licence, in those the owner of the vehicle names the driver and the state issues a new ticket to them. However, even in those jurisdictions, fines for parking offences are paid by the hirer and charged to the hireree.

In a comment, you say that the terms make you “responsible” for fines. Responsible means the same as being responsible for damage to the vehicle. It means you will pay for it, not that you will argue about it. Responsibility in law does not necessarily mean that a person has the freedom to act as they want - freedom can be traded away by contract, indeed that’s what a contract fundamentally is - you voluntarily limit your freedom of action in return for something from someone else.

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  • 3
    I don't agree with your last sentence. An agreement to be responsible for something strongly implies that you have the ability control the circumstances around it. Responsibility implies authority. How can you be "responsible for the fine" if they deprive you of the authority to mitigate it? And how can you be "responsible for the fine" if they affirmative remove from you the ability to mitigate their damages? Apr 7 at 21:55
  • 2
    @DaleM thanks very much for taking the time to answer. However I feel like this is just you seizing an opportunity to say "you should have read the terms and conditions! Too bad on you!". We all know consumers have no choice in the matter, it's not as though the T&C are not nearly exactly the same at all rental counters, and we all know nobody reads them, and that even if we did, they can't be negotiated with. My question is if such a term is legal in the first place (I think you know that). Additionally, if "responsibility" excludes the right to fight it
    – raphimtl
    Apr 7 at 22:50
  • 5
    @DaleM I feel confident a judge will agree with me that when I signed the rental contract, I agreed to take responsibility for any potential ticket (i.e. as though it was issued directly to me) but did not agree to automatically plead guilty to it. I would love to get some legal feedback and/or references to similar cases if anyone knows of any. Telling me "if you don't like it, don't rent a car!" is not helpful.
    – raphimtl
    Apr 7 at 23:08
  • 3
    @grovkin Read the comment above. No points are involved
    – raphimtl
    Apr 8 at 2:01
  • 4
    @raphimtl ah, I see it now. I did overlook it. In that case the point stands. The company did not plea guilty on your behalf. The company has plead guilty on its own behalf and demanded that you compensate it in case of such an eventuality. By agreeing to such terms, you agreed to act as an insurance in case the company is presented with such an event. Since the triggering event has happened, you are now asked to compensate them. The ticket wasn't issued to you. It was issued to the company. A 3rd party can't plead guilty on your behalf unless they are your lawyer.
    – grovkin
    Apr 8 at 7:51
3

Based on your comments:

  • You rented the car and agreed to "be responsible for fines"
  • The government decided to write a ticket your driving
  • The ticket was written to the company
  • The company plead guilty and paid it without contest
  • The company then billed you the amount of the ticket
  • You feel that they either shouldn't bill you or they should give you a chance to contest the ticket first

I don't think there's anything in this saying that you agreed to not contest any tickets. One could argue (as some have in comments) that "being responsible for" implies that, but the fact is that it does not and one could just as easily argue otherwise.

If you really want to fight it, you have three options:

  • Refuse to pay, dodge the collectors and hope they give up. If they try to sue you for it the burden of proof shifts a little towards them to prove that you really did agree to pay. But the unpaid charge may also go on your record and cause other problems (such as hurting your credit).
  • Hire a lawyer to sue them for the amount of the fine. It will probably be more trouble than it's worth and who knows how much the whole thing will cost you. But when you consult with the lawyer he can explain on what exact grounds you will be suing and how much it will cost. The case isn't exactly slam dunk so don't be surprised if you don't find many who are willing to take it on.
  • Find a lawyer willing to do a class-action against these companies and their predatory, deceptive contracts and practices. Again you might have trouble attracting interest, but in the consultation you can hear all about that.

To me, none of these are realistic given the likely modest sum of the fine. But if you don't want to take my word for it, go call up some lawyers in your area and set up appointments. I sympathize with you and also think it's unfair that they didn't give you a chance to contest. Maybe you did nothing wrong and the ticket was written by mistake. It's not right for the company to just happily leap at the chance to make you a victim of the bureaucracy in this situation. The problem is that you signed a crappy contract. The contract is crappy in that it poorly defines your rights as a consumer while providing bulletproof CYA for the company. Not surprising, given that it's written by lawyers in the company's employ (the same lawyers will be there to fight against your case in court, btw). The only real solution here is to put pressure on these companies (spread it on social media, leave a review, boycott) to stop offering such one sided deals. But unfortunately consumers get lured in by low prices only to realize too late the strings that come attached.

6
  • "The company plead guilty" — where does this come from? Rental companies cannot be guilty for what the drivers do. They simply collect fines on behalf of the government — at the drivers' written consent.
    – Greendrake
    Apr 8 at 3:40
  • 1
    @Greendrake this answer didn't say that the company plead guilty on behalf of the driver. It said it "plead guilty." It is at least conceivable that the law permits for some moving violations to result in citations against cars' owners. Certainly laws do permit such citations for parking violations.
    – grovkin
    Apr 8 at 8:01
  • There is virtually no chance of rental companies removing anything but the most egregious terms from their contracts. 95%+ of consumers don't care, and probably less than 0.1% actually read it. We all know that companies in an oligopoly can put whatever they want in T&Cs. That's just how our sucky system is set up Apr 8 at 14:44
  • @CodyBugstein Not with that attitude, they won't. If you recognize the system as sucky, why would you continue to subsidize it, and even try to convince others to subsidize it too? That makes no sense to me.
    – Consis
    Apr 8 at 19:17
  • Where do I advocate subsidizing it? Apr 8 at 19:33
2

From the description in the question and in all the comments to all the answers, it appears that the most likely scenario of what has happened is as following:

  • a city employs suboptimal traffic cam devices which may result in citations when none should be issued.
  • a city has an ordinance allowing it to issue some of the citations to car owners, rather than drivers, in the cases when the citations are based on traffic cam observation. It is possible (but not necessary) that such citations to the owners can only be issued to the owners if the owners are fleet operators (rental companies, cab companies, etc.).
  • such citations do not result in any accusations being made against drivers (which is reasonable because a camera cannot verify identities of drivers).
  • a rental contract, that you signed, stipulates that you indemnify the rental company for any damages it may incur resulting from citations issued against the car while the car is rented to you. You act as an insurance company with respect to this point. You are no more considered "guilty" of anything than an insurance company is guilty if a rock falls from the sky and damages an insured property. If "guilty"/"not guilty" is not a consideration, then neither is "innocent" a consideration.
  • you are now presented with a bill for an event which you believe is a result of a case of a bad judgement by the city.
  • YOU are NOT accused of a traffic violation.

If you incur damages because of a municipality's bad judgement, you have a tort against that municipality.

It is almost certain that the damages that you suffered from this event do not justify the legal cost of seeking a remedy. Had the damages been exorbitant, you would have a reason to pay for a professional legal advice. So the argument that this can result in unlimited fines, against any one individual, is moot.

The only (potential but unlikely) upside to your situation is that the cameras are automated. So any mistakes that they make, they likely make time and again. This opens up a remote possibility of a mass-tort suit. If you want to explore that route, then you may try to find a class-action legal specialist who would consider it profitable to explore this case.

As others have suggested, your recourse is not limited to only seeking legal remedies. You also have the option of raising public awareness of this situation. To some degree you have already taken a step towards doing this by asking this question on a public website. There are others.

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  • From personal experience, all traffic cameras are imperfect, and are intentionally set to have more false positives than negatives. All images are reviewed by a trained human before a citation is issued. The human's name is part of the ticket. Only a minority of images result in citations. All camera citations are issued to the registered owners of the vehicle, not the driver. No camera tickets carry points, because the actual driver cannot be proved. Only a money fine is involved. There is a procedure to challenge camera tickets issued to individual owners. Apr 9 at 14:22
  • You write "So the argument that this can result in unlimited fines, against any one individual, is moot.". Why is it moot? If a malfunctioning camera issued 20 fines on the vehicle, I would according to my rental car company be forced to pay all those fines, with zero recourse
    – raphimtl
    Apr 11 at 1:55
  • @raphimtl you have a recourse: a law suit.
    – grovkin
    Apr 11 at 9:25
  • @grovkin lawsuit against the rental company or the city?
    – raphimtl
    Apr 11 at 13:27
  • @raphimtl the city. please, read the answer before commenting.
    – grovkin
    Apr 11 at 13:39
0

Fight the traffic authority, not the rental company

It is standard practice for car rental companies to charge whatever fines the car attracts while rented by you. It simply cannot be any other way. What do you expect — that traffic authorities will chase you up to enforce the fine when you are thousands of miles away? Or that they exempt rental cars from paying fines?

You still can go to court and challenge the traffic authority for imposing the fine in the first place (as opposed to challenging the rental company for doing what you have agreed to — collecting the fine). If you succeed, you'll get the fine reversed.

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  • I think OP was probably expecting to appear in court and contest the fine, and then pay the rental company if he loses. As opposed to the rental company just forcing him to plead no contest.
    – Consis
    Apr 8 at 3:05
  • 2
    Didn't read the question? It says "the city which issued the ticket said the case was closed and cannot be reopened because the fine had been paid"
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 8 at 21:36
  • 1
    @Greendrake: The driver isn't even a party to the citation. The license plate is registered to the rental company. The rental company cannot represent the driver but it doesn't matter, the nolo contendere was entered on their own behalf in their role as the party to which the vehicle is registered. The driver doesn't have standing to appeal the traffic citation. They can only take the rental car company to court, claiming that the rental car made a mistake by paying an invalid fine and the driver should not be responsible for the rental company's mistake.
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 9 at 16:41
  • 1
    To clarify, the rental company sent me a copy of the citation. The city did not. I called the city to tell them I wanted to contest the fine. The city told me there is no option to reopen the case since it has already been paid. Had it not been paid yet, I could have asked for the rental company to fill out an affidavit transferring the fine to me. But it was too late for that. I simply don't believe I agreed to blindly accepting any erroneous fines. In my contract I agreed to take responsibility for fines and even pay them when legitimate, but not automatically pay for malfunctioning cameras
    – raphimtl
    Apr 11 at 13:32
  • 1
    @raphimtl Any ambiguity as to which of the two parties (city or company) is liable is no impediment to filing a lawsuit against them both jointly. The court will decide who is at fault and to what extent.
    – Greendrake
    Apr 11 at 22:39

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