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Win! Rental Car Companies Can No Longer Give You Recalled Cars That Could Burst Into Flames

Rental companies have long rented cars they know may be unsafe.

Sometimes a piece of consumer legislation comes along that’s so head-slappingly basic you wonder how such a thing was ever legal, and how more people haven’t died as a result. Such is the case with an agreement signed this week by five major rental car companies, soon expected to be passed into law, banning them from renting out cars that have been recalled by their manufacturers.

That’s right, there is currently no law on the books prohibiting rental car companies from renting out recalled, potentially dangerous cars to customers. Unfortunately, it took the deaths of two young women, plus years of campaigning by their mother and other consumer safety advocates to turn things around.

Death of Raechel and Jacquie Houck

The accident that killed sisters Raechel and Jacquie Houck is horrifying on its own, but the fact that their deaths were preventable and caused by corporate negligence makes the story that much worse.

On October 7, 2004, 24-year-old Raechel Houck rented a PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Capitola, California. The car was new, a 2004 model, but it had a critical defect. As Enterprise had learned a month earlier, Daimler Chrysler had recalled this model due to “a power steering hose that could leak and ignite on the catalytic converter, causing a fire under the hood,” according to Ojai Valley News. After learning of the safety recall, the branch rented out the vehicle to a total of four customers, including Raechel.

A few hours after getting the keys to the Cruiser, Raechel was driving down Highway 101 with 20-year-old Jacquie when the car “crossed the grass median and hit a southbound big rig, bursting into flames,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports. Both women died on the scene.

Enterprise responded to the accident by offering the Houcks’ parents, Cally and Chuck, $3 million, according to the family lawyer. Instead, the family chose to go to court, where Enterprise argued that the accident had been caused by negligent driving on Raechel’s part.

“I knew in my heart, always, that Raechel was a very good driver,” Callie Houck told reporters during the 2010 trial. “Having lived in Europe for two years, she spent a lot of time driving the roads of rural Italy. She was very cautious and would never have taken any chances.”

It was also revealed in court that Enterprise, which also owns National Car Rental and Alamo, made a regular habit of renting out recalling vehicles:

Enterprise corporate philosophy was "you've got to keep booking, because you don't know when you are going to get a car back. But then of course, you run short on vehicles, and if all you have are recalled vehicles on the lot, you rent them out. It was a given. The whole company did it."

[Enterprise branch manager Mark Matias’s] statement explained his understanding of the policy: If a priority recall appears on the computer screen in the rental office, the employee is required to write the word "recall" on a Post-it note and place it on the key in an area designated for non-rentals, but nothing prevents an employee from renting that vehicle.

It’s a practice that car safety advocates have dubbed " rental car roulette."

In the end, the jury awarded the Houck family $15 million, which, according to Cally Houck, went to legal fees and the family's RageJax Foundation, an art and music education charity.

Legacy of Safety Problems

Although the Houcks won a large settlement in the case, they did not feel justice had been served for one major reason: Enterprise didn’t agree to change its policies about renting recalled cars. In fact, the Houcks learned, none of the major car rental companies had policies in place that would’ve protected their daughters from renting a car with a known safety defect, and none of them planned to change.