Feb. 23, 2012 -- A mother who lost her two daughters in the fiery crash of a rental car under safety recall has launched a petition drive calling on Enterprise, the nation's largest rental car company, to drop its opposition to a law that would keep companies from renting out cars that had been recalled because of safety risks.
"I want to keep this from happening to another family and to be sure that my daughters' memory is preserved," said Cally Houck, whose girls died in a recalled car rented to them by Enterprise. "Until there is real accountability and Enterprise has a responsibility to its customers, we are still going to have problems like this."
According to Change.org, the organization that is hosting Houck's on-line petition, more than 100,000 people have signed the petition since its launch earlier this week.
The nation's rental car companies together own more than 1.5 million vehicles, with hundreds of thousands subject to recall in any given year. A law proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-California, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y. would stop care rental firms from renting out cars that are subject to federal safety recalls until after they are fixed. The senators attached the law as an amendment to a transportation bill that is up for vote in Congress later this month.
Earlier this week, Hertz, the nation's second largest car rental company, reached a deal with a consumer group that would give the federal government authority over recalled rental car repairs and prohibit companies from renting or selling recalled vehicles until they have been fixed. Avis/Budget, the third largest U.S. company, told ABC News that it too was "currently reviewing and discussing the Hertz proposal."
Houck alleges that Enterprise, which opposes the law, has been working behind the scenes to block it. Enterprise Holdings owns the National, Alamo and Enterprise rental companies.
As featured in a 2010 ABC News report, Houck's two daughters, 24-year-old Raechel and 20-year-old Jacquie, were killed in 2004 when the Chrysler PT Cruiser they rented from Enterprise apparently began leaking steering fluid and suddenly caught fire before crashing into an oncoming semi-tractor trailer. The car had been under a safety recall for the potential fire hazard, but was still rented to the sisters. The Houck family sued Enterprise, and after a lengthy legal fight, the company admitted negligence and was required to pay $15 million in damages to the family. After the ABC News report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation to see how quickly rental car companies repair vehicles that have been recalled.
"It is precisely because of my past experiences and the legal battle that I am taking Enterprise to task," Cally Houck told ABC News. "Enterprise has been defiant and arrogant through our drive for legislation. During five years of litigation, they waged a war of attrition, hoping we'd drop the matter or our attorneys would run out of money."
"I can only speculate why this company is so recalcitrant," said Houck, "but given my adversarial history with the company, I've come to realize that the well-being of consumers is of little concern."A spokeswoman for Enterprise confirmed that the company is opposed to the law, but did not address whether Enterprise has lobbied against it.
Enterprise: Houck Accident A 'Terrible Tragedy'
Laura Bryant of Enterprise said the Houck accident was a "terrible tragedy," that customer safety is Enterprise's "top priority," and that the company "share[s] the Houcks' goal of preventing anything like this from happening again." Bryant said that Enterprise does not rent out "vehicles that are subject to a NHTSA-approved recall," but that the company also "may elect to use [an] interim solution" recommended by manufacturers "to avoid stranding many travelers for no reason."
"[A] number of respected individuals, including elected officials and regulators, [believe] additional oversight of the recall process may be needed," said Bryant. "While we believe this well-meaning legislation is unnecessary and based on inaccurate, obsolete data, our company continues to work with these individuals and organizations -- including NHTSA and the auto manufacturers -- to find common ground and produce a solution that addresses everyone's concerns."
Meanwhile, Hertz reached an agreement with a safety advocacy group, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, that mirrors the provisions of the Schumer-Boxer amendment. In a statement, an Avis spokesman said his company was also weighing the Hertz deal.
"It has always been Avis Budget Group's view that recall issues should be resolved on a federal level, rather than a 50-state patchwork solution," said John Barrows, vice president for communications. "While the Hertz proposal has certain coverage and logistical problems, we welcome an opportunity to discuss these challenges with input from consumers, manufacturers, and fleet owners and operators. To that end, we are currently reviewing and discussing the Hertz proposal and other ideas with Hertz among other parties."
Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, said she believed that Hertz had made the deal because it is a public company, accountable to stockholders, while Enterprise is privately held. "Enterprise is known for having a 'scorched earth' corporate ethic," claimed Shahan, who echoed Houck's allegation that Enterprise has been working to kill the Schumer/Boxer amendment. "They hate government regulation."