By Jon Hood
Enterprise Rent-a-Car has agreed to settle a lawsuit concerning its resale of scores of rental cars lacking side air bags.
The suit, filed in April, alleged that Enterprise sold 125,000 Chevrolets and Buicks to unwitting consumers who thought -- and, in some cases, were told -- that the cars came with side curtain air bags.
And who could blame them: side air bags were purportedly standard equipment in the Chevrolet Impala, one of the models covered by the litigation. Indeed, the suit notes that every major crash-test rating and consumer buying guide lists front and rear side impact air bags as standard safety equipment on the 2007 and 2008 Impala, and says that GM extensively advertised and marketed the cars as so equipped.
Enterprise requested deletion
But according to the suit, Enterprise specifically requested that the airbags be deleted, allowing it to save around $175 per car. Despite its knowledge that none of the cars had side air bags, the complaint says, Enterprise fraudulently concealed the nonconformity by failing to disclose the deletion of the standard safety features.
The suit covers the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Chevrolet Impala; the 2008 and 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt; the 2009 Chevrolet Heritage High Roof (HHR); and the 2006 and 2007 Buick Lacrosse. Side airbags were standard equipment on the Impala only; they remained optional on the other models.
According to the suit, [a]n examination of a salvaged 2007 Impala originally sold to Enterprise revealed that the space normally occupied by the side curtain head bag was filled with corrugated plastic.
Lead plaintiffs Timothy Withrow and David Tucker both bought 2008 Impalas from Enterprise believing that the cars came equipped with side airbags.
When Connie Wittkopp bought her 2008 Impala, Enterprises website explicitly listed the car as having side airbags in the front and rear, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News. Enterprise, for its part, chalked the misrepresentation up to an online software glitch.
Side-impact crashes common
The suit notes that side-impact crashes are the second most common type of accident, and that side airbags are frequently listed as must-have safety features with the potential to reduce fatalities and prevent injuries and deaths caused by ejections in rollovers.
Indeed, side-impact collisions present the greatest risk, in part because of the small amount of sheet metal separating passengers from the car that hits them. According to Edmunds.com, side-impact collisions accounted for 28 percent of auto fatalities in 2007.
Plaintiffs to receive $100
Enterprise confirmed the settlement through a spokeswoman.
We typically do not comment on litigation, Laura Bryant told UPI last week. However, the parties have negotiated a settlement and are proceeding in good faith.
Under the settlement, which totals $14 million, class members are eligible to receive a $100 coupon toward future car rentals and a nifty yellow sticker reading, No Side Curtain Airbags. The stickers serve less to remind class members that they got a raw deal -- a fact with which they are already intimately familiar -- than to shield them from liability when they decide to sell their cars to a new generation of unsuspecting buyers.
The settlement may appear lacking, but the suit has produced at least one concrete benefit: GM no longer allows fleet buyers to delete standard safety equipment, meaning that you can finally trust those window stickers and buyers guides.