Dear Consumer Ed:  

I took my car to a car wash. When I got it back the air freshener device was put in upside down, causing liquid to stain the console. The manager is refusing to take responsibility for the damage, saying that if I had not put the air freshener in the car, this would not have happened.  What are my rights?   

Consumer Ed says:

The car wash owes you a “duty of ordinary care” to prevent damages to your car while it’s in its custody.  This is because of what the law calls a bailment, which arises when you deliver your property to another person exclusively for some agreed-upon purpose.  A bailment was created between you and the car wash operator when you gave your car to them for cleaning.  Accordingly, the company may be liable for the cost to fix the damage that occurred due to its failure to exercise ordinary care.  However, even though your property was damaged, you may still not be entitled to compensation if the car wash has a sufficient disclaimer that limits its liability for damage done to your car, e.g., if the car wash gave you written notice, or if there was an implied agreement between you and the company to that effect. This written notice might be in the form of a receipt or service ticket with a disclaimer that states something to the effect that:  the company will not be liable for any damages to your car, and your acceptance of this receipt or service ticket indicates that you are aware of this policy.

However, not every disclaimer is sufficient to waive your rights. If the language of the disclaimer is confusing or unclear, or if it’s in a location on the ticket or is printed so small that you couldn’t reasonably be expected to have seen it before you became obligated to pay for the services, then you can argue that the disclaimer was ineffective and does not apply.  Many car wash companies try to avoid bad publicity, so you may want to speak with the manager again or with the owner of the company about your damages.  If after speaking with both of them, they still won’t agree to compensate you for your damages, you may want to try speaking with corporate headquarters if the car wash company is a franchise.  It’s very important that you document any complaints you file and take pictures of the damage done to your car.  If you exhaust all communications with the company (and/or its corporate office) and still can’t get any relief, you may want to file a complaint against the car wash company in small claims court.

To avoid this kind of problem in the future, you should check a car wash’s damage policy before using its services.  You can easily get this information by asking an employee about the damage policy, or by reading any damage policy which may be posted.  If you can’t get a straight answer from the employee, or you’re not satisfied with the company’s damage policy, it may best to avoid that particular car wash and find another.   Whenever you get a car wash, you should immediately inspect your vehicle for any damage (preferably before you leave the premises).  If your vehicle has been damaged, speak to the car wash manager or owner as soon as you discover it.  They may require that you file a complaint or report.  The company’s final decision on the damages may be to reimburse you for the full value of the damages, a portion of those damages, or it may deny your claim.  If you are denied, you may want to contact an attorney, depending on the extent of the damage to your car.

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