Assuming that car rental agencies provide safe and well-maintained vehicles, drivers often choose to rent a car for a long road trip rather than put the miles on their own car. Renters trust the rental agency to provide safe vehicles because that’s their business. That’s the service customers are paying for in daily rates. Apparently that assumption may be wrong and the trust misplaced. Sometimes rental agencies seek to push cars off the lot, even when they know the cars have problems with tires, brakes or steering.

In 2004, the Houck sisters were returning to Santa Cruz from their mother’s home in Ventura when their rented PT Cruiser crossed the grass median and hit a southbound big rig and burst into flames. Both were killed in the crash.

The girls had rented the Cruiser from Enterprise Rent a Car in SF. What the girls didn’t know when they signed for the car was that, a month earlier, Daimler Chrysler recalled 435,000 PT Cruisers manufactured from 2002 through 2005. That recall included the Cruiser that Enterprise provided them. The reason for the recall was that the power steering hose could leak, resulting in a fire.

Nor did Enterprise tell the girls that it had ignored the recall, renting it out to four previous customers without ever getting the necessary repairs completed.

When experts concluded Rachel Houck lost steering ability because of a power-steering fluid leak, the girls’ parents sued Enterprise seeking to hold the company responsible for the accident.

Mark Matias, the manager of Enterprise’s Northern California area testified that before the accident, he was not aware the PT Cruiser had been recalled. Furthermore, he said the 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."

His 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 out that vehicle.

A jury disapproved of Enterprise’s business practices and returned a verdict against Enterprise and in favor of the girls’ parents in the amount of $15 million. Given the Houck family tragedy, hopefully Enterprise, along with other rental agencies will reconsider renting a recalled car and strive to meet the renter’s expectation of safety.