California Rental Car Safety Bill Progresses Through Legislature

Assembly Bill 753, also known as the Houck Rental Car Safety Act, has been passed by the California Assembly and has proceeded through its first committee hearing in the Senate. The law is intended to prevent rental car companies from renting or selling defective automobiles that are subject to a federal safety recall notice.

The Act is named for sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, who died in 2004 after their rental vehicle, a Chrysler PT Cruiser, caught fire. The sisters were involved in a crash on Highway 101 enroute to Santa Cruz following a visit to their Ojai family home. Their mother Carol has advocated tirelessly with the group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (C.A.R.S.) to get California lawmakers to prohibit rentals of defective cars that are under a safety recall unless the auto defect has been fixed.

Many Californians and tourists who rent vehicles in the state may be surprised to know that rental car companies have no legal obligation to heed recalls issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Houcks were able to rent the PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car despite a NHTSA recall that cautioned owners of the potential for vehicle fires due to a power steering hose defect. The legal loophole: while car dealers cannot sell recalled vehicles without first addressing the problem, the law has does not explicitly include car rental agencies.

Existing California law prohibits a person from renting out a vehicle unless it meets specified vehicle safety requirements, and some rental car companies have created policies that interpret this provision to include recalled vehicles. But the bill's primary sponsor said that other companies must be prevented from taking cost-cutting measures that compromise consumer safety, and a clear criminal statute regarding rental of recalled vehicles will help to "make sure that tragedy is not visited on another family."

Keeping Defective Vehicles off of California Streets and Highways

Vehicles are subject to federal recalls if defects are discovered that pose an unreasonable risk to the public or if the vehicle fails to comply with mandatory federal safety standards. Enterprise was notified by Chrysler about the defective steering component that led to the deaths of the Houck sisters one month before the fatal motor vehicle accident.

While the rental car company was not obligated under California criminal statutes to pull its recalled PT Cruisers out of circulation, a party that knowingly sells, leases or rents for use a dangerous vehicle is subject to civil remedies and damages actions. Injury victims and surviving family members who sue a company that provides known defective vehicles to consumers are exercising an important means of legal accountability.

C.A.R.S. is working on other statutory reforms to reduce the need for civil action to hold companies accountable for profiting from the sale or rental of substandard cars and trucks. One law would mandate that California new and used car dealers check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to verify that vehicles have not been marked with status problems such as "flood," "junk," "salvage," "non-repairable" or "lemon law buyback" to protect consumers, as well as motorists and passengers.

Auto Defect Attorneys Help Clients Assess Their Legal Options

Catastrophic and fatal injuries all too commonly result from vehicle defects such as rollover tendencies, airbag failures, sudden acceleration problems, defective door latches, tire blowouts and fuel system problems. Whether the auto defect causes the accident in the first place or makes it much worse by leading to an explosion, manufacturers, distributors and retailers of defective vehicles and substandard auto parts must be held accountable.

Auto defect litigation provides benefits to both individuals and society. First and foremost, injury victims and wrongful death survivors need and deserve compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost income, and other harm that results when vehicle designs, components and systems fail to perform as intended.

The second benefit is also extremely important: drawing attention to unsafe vehicles and unsound practices when government regulation has failed to identify or react to problems. Potential personal injury clients can discuss this and other aspects of motor vehicle accident cases with a California auto product liability attorney.