Op-Ed

Lawmakers should close car insurance loophole

COPELAND
COPELAND

Would you like to buy the insurance for your rental car?

We’ve all gotten the question when we rent a car. And we all probably answer the same way. “No thank you.”

For most of us, that answer is predicated on the notion that we already have our own insurance or on the false belief that rental car companies, in the end, will be financially responsible for any accident. After all, if we lend our car to a friend, and that friend got into an accident, we’d be liable. Surely the same rule applies to rental car companies, right?

Wrong.

Floridians are required to carry insurance to operate a motor vehicle. Taxis also must insure and assume liability in the event of an accident. In addition, trucking companies must insure their drivers and vehicles if they want to operate in Florida. Only one industry has been able to avoid responsibility to the public...and it’s letting visitors injure, maim, and kill Floridians.

Meet Anthoney Belfon, a 30-year-old-husband and father of two. A small business owner of a company called “Toney’s House Repair,” Belfon was living the American Dream. Hard working, never asking for a handout, employing neighbors and raising a family.

On Aug. 28, 2008, everything changed. That day, a rental car bolted from an adjacent parking lot driveway directly in front of oncoming traffic. Belfon had no time to react before smashing into the side of the rental. The force of the impact crushed his leg, resulting in amputation above the knee.

The driver of the rental car was from New Jersey, and didn't have a valid driver’s license. To make matters worse, the car was originally rented by the driver’s relative who did have a valid license — and who declined, as most do, the insurance offered through the rental company.

While any Florida resident driver would be required to carry insurance to assist Belfon in his recovery, people who rent cars are not.

At this point, you’re probably asking, “Why aren't people from out of state who rent cars in Florida required to provide proof of insurance?” The answer, simply, is that a provision slipped into a federal law, coupled with Florida’s inaction due to the powerful rental car lobby, prevents this egregious out-of-state insurance coverage loophole from being closed.

The federal law, called the “Graves Amendment” states that, “An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if...the owner is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles.”

Basically, if you run a car rental company, you are virtually free of liability. So for some rental car operations, why risk losing business or raising prices a few dollars to insure when you don’t have to?

Fortunately, some in the Florida Legislature are looking to protect Floridians and close this unfair loophole. Rep. Frank Artiles and Sen. Anitere Flores introduced bills (HB 819 and SB 976) that would simply require car rental companies to be treated like every other owner of a vehicle in Florida. Their bills would allow rental car companies who didn't want to be left holding the bag, to require out-of-state renters to purchase insurance.

Insurance should exist for people like Toney Belfon — a man who never used government or lawyers as a crutch. Today, however, Belfon literally cannot afford the proper prosthetic leg and gets through the day in a pair of beat up crutches. An irony that only Legislators can fix, if they would only choose leveling the playing field over lobbyists.

Todd E. Copeland, an attorney in Kissimmee, is president-elect of the Florida Justice Association.

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