Too Bad: Your Incinerated Belongings Are Not Zipcar's Problem (Updated!)

We have an update to this story, with a happy ending for everyone except for the ill-fated Mini Cooper.

Is John asking too much from Zipcar? He writes that he and his wife rented a Mini Cooper for a weekend trip. On their way home, their car first overheated, then burst into flames just minutes after they pulled over. The couple survived uninjured, but didn’t have time to get all of their belongings out of the car. Zipcar sent roadside assistance, reimbursed John and his wife for their car ride home, and gave them a credit good for another daylong car rental. However, the company will not cover any of their personal items destroyed in the fire.

My wife and I reserved a Zipcar (Mini Cooper) for a weekend trip up to the Catskills November 6th through 8th to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. While I know that using Zipcar instead of a traditional rental car company for a weekend trip isn’t the most cost-effective, we’ve had a few Seinfeld-esque car rental experiences in NYC before and Zipcar has been hassle free in the past for us.

The trip was beautiful, until the car drive home. We had to drive about 30 minutes to get to the NYS Thruway for the trip back to the city. The car was running great until we got onto the highway, when the temperature gauge warning light comes on. My wife grabbed the manual, which stated that we should slow down and pull over when possible to let the car cool down. Since we had just got on the busy freeway, I decided it would be safer to wait for the next exit, as there was not much room on the shoulder. In the meantime, the warning light goes off and comes back on, only to go away again. About 5 minutes of this and no exits yet, we decide we should pull over when the car starts making odd noises.

Once we pull over, there is steam coming from under the engine, typical of any over-heated car I have seen on the side of the highway before. I proceed to call Zipcar, and they said they would send roadside assistance. I turn back to the car and now notice much heavier smoke coming from under the hood, and I notice that the hood is changing colors from heat. Realizing the engine is on fire, we grab (almost all) of our belongings from the back of the car, move away from the vehicle, and call 911. From the time the warning light came on to when the car was engulfed in flames was about 10 minutes, I consider us lucky that we were not inside the car.

The car is engulfed in flames by the time the fire department arrives to put it out. The state trooper on the scene gave us a ride to the nearest town, New Paltz, and left us at a McDonalds, where I proceeded to google car services on my phone and arrange a ride back to the city. At this point, Zipcar has been more than helpful, calling us to check on us after I had called their roadside assistance to say their help would no longer be needed as the car is totaled and the cops towed it away. They offered to arrange transportation home, but since I had already done so, they said they would (and did) reimburse me for the $200+ car ride back to NYC.

I informed them that I had lost some items in the car, but we were lucky to get most of the items out. They told me that they would in no way cover my lost items (about $300). Their policy is to not cover any items left in a car, which i can understand for left/stolen items, etc., but a car fire?? They also said they would reimburse us only for the lost time from when the car caught fire til the end of our reservation (how kind, since we can’t drive a burned out piece of metal), and that they would give me 1 day’s worth of credit for the incident (but still charge me for the reservation time I used). This credit expires in January.

I emailed the customer service rep back and told him that I found this offer unsatisfactory (we could have been in that car!), and I would like my lost items covered. I have not heard back from them in over 3 weeks, just silence. I think their approach is to ignore us and hopefully we go away. I’m not trying to get a free lunch from them, I just want the lost items covered and reimbursed for the total reservation cost. It was our first anniversary, which their car ruined for us, and possibly could have killed us. They seem content to ignore my emails.

I have attached some pictures of the car before, during, and after the fire. Please feel free to contact me for any more information you might like. I pay for all my Zipcar use on my AmEx, so I am considering a chargeback, but I would prefer Zipcar just do the right thing, considering they now have a very big competitor in the car sharing business (Hertz Connect).

We contacted Zipcar to verify that this is their policy, and will keep you updated.

UPDATE: Consumerist just heard from the president of Zipcar, and this situation was due to a misunderstanding on the customer service rep’s part. Zipcar issued a refund this afternoon to John and Mrs. John for their lost belongings, and their credit for a future car rental has been upgraded to a BMW.






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