Mexican beetle lost in a waive: A holiday can turn to tragedy if you don't know exactly how a hired car is covered by insurance, writes Ian Hunter

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DENIS KEANE recently hired a Volkswagen Beetle while on holiday in Mexico. Its disappearance could end up costing him more than pounds 3,000.

In March, Mr Keane made a telephone booking for a hire car through Avis Rent-a-Car's London office. He was quoted dollars 209 ( pounds 143) for unlimited mileage for seven days plus dollars 13 ( pounds 8.90) per day for collision damage waiver cover.

Mr Keane said: 'I specifically requested that I should have full insurance for the car.' Although he supplied his credit card number at this stage, no documents were signed while he was in the United Kingdom.

According to an Avis spokeswoman: 'Avis has a firm policy of advising customers, both at the time of making their reservation and at the time they collect the car, about the different insurance options available to them.

'Quite often, circumstances change between the time that a car is booked and the time it is actually collected. Therefore, Avis rental agents will always review the contract with the client and reiterate the insurance options, at the point of collection. At this time, the client will also be asked to sign the rental document which is the binding contract.'

On arrival at the airport in Mexico, Mr Keane went to the Avis desk to pick up the keys. He said: 'I understood from my booking in London that the car was fully insured. The girl behind the Avis desk spoke little English and I less Spanish, but she asked me to initial and sign the insurance papers. I believed I was re-affirming the insurance cover I had arranged in the UK. At one stage I thought I was being offered personal insurance cover which I had already taken out before leaving home.'

When Mr Keane went to an Avis office in Mexico to report that the car had been stolen, he was informed that he had refused insurance covering the theft of the car and, as a result, was liable for the loss.

'It seems inconceivable to me that Avis do not have their own cars insured; or if they do not it is little short of criminal that they allow customers to take out uninsured vehicles knowing them to be in such danger,' he said.

The Avis spokeswoman explained: 'In Mexico, CDW (collision damage waiver) limits the customer's liability for a stolen car to the cost of five days' car rental. Without CDW, the customer is liable for the value of the car at market price. It is the scale of this risk that prompts many customers to accept this insurance. The rental agent serving Mr Keane is an experienced employee and made this clear to him.

'Mr Keane chose to decline the insurances offered, signing twice on the rental document in the boxes marked 'Collision Damage Waiver declined' and 'Personal Accident Insurance declined'. This is printed clearly in both Spanish and English, to avoid misunderstanding.'

Mr Keane wrote to the Co- operative Bank, which issued his Visa Card. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 customers using credit card payments for purchases between pounds 100 and pounds 30,000 can look to the credit card for equal liability with the company.

The Co-op debited Mr Keane's account by pounds 3,732.15. A spokesman for the bank explained that in circumstances such as this the payment would be debited to the customer's account. However the demand for payment would be frozen until it is established whether it was justified.

'If there is a dispute, the supplier of services, such as car hire, is given 60 days to produce all the documentation to justify payment. The proof required includes not just the sales voucher but any contract or other document signed by the customer. If the supplier fails to produce the documentation or to substantiate its claim, the customer's account is re-credited with the sum originally debited.'

An AA spokesman commented: 'You should not assume anything when hiring a car. It is difficult where there is a language problem. There should be a clear understanding between the parties regarding each side's responsibilities.'

The Avis spokeswoman concluded: 'While Avis regrets that Mr Keane must bear the cost of replacing the car, the company believes it made every effort to advise him of the insurance options available and that he knew he was signing to decline cover.'

(Photograph omitted)