Why it is critical to do a vehicle damage audit before taking your car back from valet workers.

This is an interesting case study about what happens after using a valet parking service while trusting them to do their job to perfection.

Forms used to mark valet damage.

Forms used to mark valet damage.

The lesson in this story is that valets cannot be trusted, ever. And you must verify that they handled your car flawlessly by doing a complete vehicle damage inspection immediately upon being presented with the car by a valet worker. You cannot drive away, find new damage later, and then expect to prevail with a damage claim against the valet parking company.

BACKGROUND

A hotel guest used the hotel's valet parking service, got her car back the next day, drove home, and then realized she had new damage to the exterior of her car. An email letter was written to the valet parking company, requesting compensation. (The consumer emailed this correspondence to me.) Here it is:

To:  (valet company claims department employee)

From: (the aggrieved consumer)

Date of incident: February 13-14, 2016
                            Homewood Suites
                            San Antonio, Texas
 
Mr. ______,

This is regarding the incident I described on the phone to you earlier this week.  In summary, I arrived at the Homewood Suites Hilton Hotel on Saturday, February 13, 2016 when your valet company parked my car, a charcoal gray 2010 Chevrolet Traverse (VIN **********2152).  Your valet returned my car to me on Sunday, February 14th when I ended my stay.  I did not use nor see my car during this period of time.  My car was parked and waiting for me to pick up in the dimly lighted area of the hotel waiting area.  When I arrived at home in Pearland later on the same day, I discovered two major gouges in the passenger side rear fender (see attached pictures). My car did not have this damage before arriving at the Homewood Suite Hilton Hotel and I could not have caused this damage during my return trip to my home.  I carried passengers who can attest to this.  The only conclusion to draw is that one of your employees who parked my car caused this damage.
 
Following are two estimates which I have received for repairing the subject damage.  (See attached for detail estimates)
 
            International Paint & Body $1,308.17 (total)
            Strickland Chevrolet – Geo, Inc. $1,338.92 (total)
 
Both companies would take approximately 5-8 days to make repairs so the approximate rental car total expense would be $175-$280 plus necessary taxes and fees.  This approximation is assuming rental car cost of $35 per day.
 
Please submit this information to your corporate office for reimbursement to me for the cost of repairing the damage to my car which your company caused.
 
Sincerely,
 
(Aggrieved consumer)

It's a well-written letter. Here is the valet company's response:

Dear (Aggrieved Consumer),

We have carefully examined the circumstances surrounding this loss and have sufficient information at this time to make a proper decision regarding this claim. Please understand that our obligation as an insurer is not to pay all claims but only those claims which are legally owed.

After evaluation of the facts, we can only conclude that there is no evidence provided to prove without question that liability falls on (valet parking company). There is no indication of negligence on the part of the (valet company) employee. Therefore, we must respectfully decline to make any payment to you on this claim...

Here is my analysis, sent to the car owner:

Hello ______,

Thank you for sending me this insightful correspondence.

Unfortunately, this situation was mishandled when (aggrieved consumer) drove the car off the property without doing a damage inspection.

This misstep gave the valet company an easy escape exit from any damage claims. 

I believe you. They probably are responsible for the damage.

But now they can say that since (aggrieved consumer) drove off the property, a fair determination of where the damage actually happened cannot be made.

If the damage was found at the moment the car was returned to her, then the valet company would look at either:

  • the arrival valet's "VDS" (vehicle damage survey), or
  • what the cameras show.

Some valet locations have a bank of video cameras that the valets drive past in order to document the condition of the cars. If they don't have this, then the valet makes marks on the valet ticket on top of vehicle illustrations that are printed on to their copy of the ticket.

If the valet failed to mark the damage, or if the camera footage showed no damage going into the parking facility, then the valet company probably would be cooperating with you.

But (aggrieved consumer) made it too easy for them to deny the claim.

Finding the damage after pulling away weakens your case by a lot.

You're left with options like complaining to hotel management, which probably won't get you anywhere, or trying to get a TV investigative journalist involved. Or picketing.

Most people in your exact situation give up after being shot down with the damage claim attempt.

I'm sorry I don't have better feedback for you. You're pretty much screwed here.

Next time, document the condition of the vehicle on arrival by photographing all sides and corners of the car by using a smartphone or iPad, so that you get time-stamped proof of the car's condition immediately prior to handing over the car key to a valet. Or use video.

And then when you get the car back, you have to do your own vehicle damage audit.

If it's dark, use a flashlight. If it's raining, you still have to take this step.

You MUST find the damage before you pull away. You cannot trust that they handled your car perfectly. You must verify that they did the job right, before handing over any tip.

There are people who actually try to scam valet companies into paying for damage they didn't cause. In my experience, this is rare. Sometimes people blame valet companies for damage they didn't cause because the car owner really was unaware that they already had that damage on their car.

So valet companies put up a stiff resistance to damage claims unless it is absolutely clear who is at fault. And even if they know they did it, if you give them an opening to weasel out of being liable, they will certainly welcome that opportunity.

It's a nasty business. And valet companies are very experienced in dodging damage claims. It is essential for their profitability. (High insurance deductibles.) So it's not an even playing field at all.

I would say that probably 9999 out of 10,000 people don't know how to defend themselves from sloppy valet work or unethical valet services. 

Well, sorry to read of your valet parking issue. (It could have been worse.)

Ed

* * *

To succeed in getting a valet parking company to compensate you for damage they caused, you need an air-tight, bulletproof case. You have to PROVE they caused the damage.

With the situation described in this correspondence, it is not 100% clear where the damage happened. In the consumer's mind, it makes sense that only the valet company employees could have done this. But in my experience, when I worked as a valet, there were a number of times when we were able to prove that the damage really was already on the car, when the customer first arrived.

So the customers were either trying to intentionally scam us into paying for damage we didn't cause, or they just were unaware that they already had this damage.

The bottom line is: valet companies will strongly resist writing checks for damage unless you PROVE they are responsible for that damage. And in the case study above, the consumer failed to prove the valet company really was at fault.

I am inclined to believe the consumer here. Because I know valet workers screw-up all the time. In fact, yesterday my website had a higher than average number of hits for articles about "what to do after a valet damages your car," and "what to do after a valet loses your keys." So that meant it was a big day for valet parking fiascos.

But you need to prove your case. The best way to do this is by documenting the condition of your car at the exact moment you hand it over to the valet, and then immediately doing a full, complete, vehicle damage audit before handing out the departure tip as you are about to retake possession of your car from the valet service.

This is the smart way to use valet parking services. You need to put up a defense.