There were small scrapes on the van Sean McCartney rented Dec. 15, but the Enterprise Rent-A-Car employee told him not to worry.
"I walked around the car and I was pointing out all these little nicks and dings and she said: 'Aw, don't worry about that, nothing under 2 inches matters," McCartney said.
So he signed the paperwork and drove the Chrysler Town and Country van from the Loop parking garage to his son's gymnastics meet in Schaumburg.
To avoid the overnight parking fee at his hotel, the Arvada, Colo., resident returned the van about midnight.
The Enterprise lot was full, so McCartney followed instructions and parked the van in a public area of the parking garage next to the Enterprise spots.
The next morning, a Sunday, McCartney called Enterprise and asked if he should come over to close the account.
"(The Enterprise employee) said no, they were slammed, they'd take care of it on Monday," McCartney recalled.
It wasn't until five days later that a manager from Enterprise called, informing him the van had been damaged and McCartney was liable.
"I almost gulped my tongue. I said: 'No, we didn't cause any damage.' He said: 'You didn't buy our insurance, did you?' I said: 'This is highway robbery.' That's what I told him."
In the weeks that followed, McCartney asked Enterprise for a repair estimate, proof of the scratches and proof that he had caused them. In early February, Enterprise emailed him an estimate dated Jan. 2 showing $409.43 in damage, just below the $500 deductible he carries on his car insurance.
The rental company also sent a series of undated pictures of the van, from which McCartney could discern no visible damage, and a rental agreement from a different customer.
"When I looked at the rental agreement, that wasn't my signature," he said. "I looked and saw that's not even me."
So he emailed Enterprise again, and again reiterated he did not cause the damage.
In March, he spoke to an Enterprise representative on the phone who gave him three options. He could refuse to pay, and Enterprise would send him to collections. He could go through arbitration using his insurance company, but was told the Enterprise contract language was "ironclad" and he would lose. Or he could agree to pay the damages, and Enterprise would cut 25 percent of the cost.
"I thought: 'That's an arbitrary number,'" McCartney said.
Upset, he contacted the Cook County state's attorney's office. An assistant state's attorney suggested he email the Problem Solver.
He said because Enterprise was too busy to check in the car Dec. 16, the damage could have occurred after he returned the car but before Enterprise logged it in. He said he should not be forced to suffer because the rental car company was short-staffed.
He said the damage estimate was created more than two weeks after he returned the car, again raising the question of when the damage occurred. Finally, based on the rental agreement Enterprise sent him, it seemed they were asking the wrong person to pay the $409, McCartney said.
The Problem Solver contacted Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings.
A short time later, McCartney received a call from someone in Enterprise's risk management department.
"He was very nice in explaining how, even though it appears we were at fault, they did not provide the appropriate turnaround time in letting us know about the damage," McCartney said. "He also stated the facility should have cleared time for us to come down and close out our account."
McCartney was then told Enterprise would waive the claim.
In an email, Bryant said less than 2 percent of the company's 50 million customer transactions each year result in damage to a vehicle, and most damage is minor.
"Sometimes customers mistakenly believe if they didn't personally cause or witness any damage — for example a 'hit-and-run' incident in a parking lot — that they are not responsible," Bryant wrote. "This is one of the most common misconceptions about rental vehicle damage. In fact, customers are financially responsible for any damage or theft that occurs during a rental transaction regardless of fault or negligence."
Bryant said Enterprise checked its files and "reconfirmed that this damage was incurred as reported to Mr. McCartney. However, it is also obvious that we were responsible for some miscommunication and confusion. As a result, we are dropping this claim because the misunderstandings were significant and understandably upsetting for Mr. McCartney."
McCartney said he's happy to have the situation behind him.
"We are very thankful, appreciative and elated," he said.