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Who pays when a rental car driver damages your property? You won’t like the answer

A Hertz car rental agency in Manhattan.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Question: On April 3, the retaining wall on my property was damaged at 4 a.m. in a hit-and-run involving a rental vehicle. The vehicle’s front bumper and license plate were dislodged when it was caught on the iron rails. The police officer told us that the license plate number belonged to a Hertz rental car. We submitted a claim to Hertz, but the claim was denied. Hertz is also unwilling to provide information about its renter beyond his name, citing privacy laws. I’ve tried to claim this with our homeowners insurance, but unfortunately, the damage was less than our $2,500 deductible. Do you have advice for me?

Daniel Huang

San Jose

Answer: Yes. Put your feet up and sip an adult beverage as you mull your not-so-hot options.

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First problem: The renter didn’t take out a liability insurance supplement, or LIS, which would have covered the damage through Hertz. In an email, Hertz noted that now “this is a matter between the renter who assumed liability and the homeowner who experienced damages.”

That’s not passing the buck; that’s part of federal law known as the Graves Amendment. It says, in part, “An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person [or an affiliate of the owner] shall not be liable under the law of any state or political subdivision … for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease….There is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner [or an affiliate of the owner].”

In other words, Hertz didn’t slam the car into Huang’s retaining wall, so Hertz shouldn’t have to pay to fix it.

Who should? Homeowners insurance? Here’s problem No. 2: Huang’s homeowner’s insurance has a higher deductible than the estimated cost of the damage, so that company probably is not going to be involved.

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Instead, the involved party should be the criminal who is now guilty of a hit-and-run.

Calling someone a criminal may sound harsh, but under California Vehicle Code 20002, if you damage someone’s property and you don’t stop or leave a note, that is a misdemeanor that “upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or by both that imprisonment and fine.” (If someone is injured, the crime becomes a felony.)

Keep this in mind the next time you ding someone’s car and are tempted to pretend it didn’t happen, rental car or no.

Here’s problem No. 3: Under the terms of Hertz’s privacy policy, a spokesman said, the identity of the renter can’t be revealed. (The company may have inadvertently spilled the beans on the name in another communication to Huang, but the name is so common — WhitePages.com lists 839 people with that name in California alone and more than 10,000 nationwide — there’s little hope of finding him.)

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Tracking him down is better left to the police department. Huang should follow up with the law enforcement agency that took his police report, said Kevin Coffey, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who runs a company called Corporate Travel Safety, which focuses on the well-being of travelers.

Huang was smart to report this to police, Coffey said, because that documentation could be the starting point for an investigation.

It’s a small case, of course, and the response Huang gets from the police department will depend on the caseload, Coffey said. If Huang follows up on his report and doesn’t find satisfaction with the detective assigned to the case, ask for a supervisor, Coffey said.

Don’t assume that the department won’t investigate it, but don’t count on it either.

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If Huang still has nothing, his court of last resort is actually small claims court. California makes it easy to file.

How do you sue someone if you don’t know who that someone is? A Hertz spokesman said it would respond with information on the renter if it received a lawfully issued subpoena, which you can find on California’s small claims court website. If Hertz is named in the suit, along with the person identified in Hertz communications, and a John/Jane Doe or two also is listed (because the renter may not have been the driver), you may get the information you need.

Or you can forget all of this, call the contractor and prepare to write a check for your newly remodeled retaining wall, thanks to the irresponsible slug who drove into it. May the walls of justice come a-tumblin’ down on him or her one day.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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