May 26, 2024

Your Money: Consider the Worst Case With Zipcar

Paying customers are “members,” and they (mostly) watch out for one another by returning the rent-by-the-hour cars and trucks on time so the next user is not delayed. They clean up their takeout containers and fill the gas tank with Zipcar-paid fuel before dropping off the vehicle. Zipcar encourages members to look out for one another by fining those who don’t embrace this communal spirit.

But so far, it has paid no penalty for leaving customers exposed to enormous legal judgments if they get in a serious accident. It caps the liability insurance coverage it provides for members at $300,000 per incident, no matter how many people they may hurt.

Hertz’s copycat car-sharing service, Connect by Hertz, provides even less insurance: the pathetically low bare minimums that each state requires. And even though Hertz sells better coverage to traditional rental car customers on a daily basis, it does not do so for its Connect customers. Zipcar has no such offering, either.

Last week, Zipcar completed a successful initial public offering. Investors are presumably just fine with the fact that the company keeps its insurance costs down by not making the baseline offering, say, $1 million for everyone.

Zipcar and Hertz car-sharing drivers, however, ought to consider the worst case. That’s what insurance is supposed to be for, after all, and neither company’s coverage protects people from it. Would it be so hard to give customers the option to buy a lot more coverage for a bit more money?

Zipcar has known about this issue for many years. I first wrote about it in a Wall Street Journal column in 2005, when the liability coverage was identical to Hertz’s current offering. Felix Salmon, a blogger for Reuters, has periodically hammered away at Zipcar since that time, too.

In 2007, after merging its operations with those of a rival, Flexcar, Zipcar bolstered its coverage to match what Flexcar had been offering. Today, customers who are 21 or older have $300,000 of liability coverage per accident. That would have to cover mangled limbs, brain damage, pain and suffering and anything else that might befall all the people that a Zipcar vehicle mowed down or plowed into.

Drivers under 21 get much less coverage. Zipcar would have to pay a lot of money to provide $300,000 in coverage to less-experienced college-age drivers, and it figures that most of its users in this age group are covered by their parents’ auto policies anyway. So Zipcar does as little as possible here, offering each state’s minimum requirements and no more.

As for your own bodily injury, Zipcar offers the state-mandated minimum coverage here, too. If you have no health insurance, this could be a big problem.

Zipcar members who do not read the disclosures on the company’s Web site would never know about any of this. And many of them don’t, since the company has persisted with the claim elsewhere on its site that its insurance is “comprehensive.”

Wouldn’t a lawyer for an injured person or the family of an accident victim go after Zipcar first, since that’s where the money is? They could try, but a federal law shields rental car companies in many instances, and Zipcar has already cited it in at least one legal skirmish over someone injured in an accident involving a Zipcar.

Just in case, however, Zipcar still insures itself. In a filing accompanying its initial public offering, the company noted that in the event that it was responsible for an accident, say because it failed to maintain its cars, it had coverage up to $5 million in the United States. That is more than 16 times the maximum protection that it offers its members.

Other Zipcar members may assume that their credit card companies offer insurance coverage for rental cars. And the card issuers’ insurance feature may indeed help pay for damage to a vehicle, though Visa’s excludes car-sharing services like Zipcar. But none of these policies offer any liability coverage.

According to a Zipcar spokeswoman, Colleen McCormick, the $300,000 in coverage has been adequate for every accident since it began operations. She added that more than half of accidents involve only the Zipcar vehicle itself. When another car is involved, 93 percent of the accidents have resulted in claims of less than $10,000, and 99.3 percent result in claims of less than $50,000.

That makes the company pretty lucky. Sure, accidents with injuries are rare, but what happens when they do occur? According to ISO, a data provider to insurance companies, about 2 percent of bodily injury liability insurance claims in the United States are for more than $300,000; in the State of New York, it’s 3 percent.

For brain damage in a vehicular accident, the median jury award in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, was $289,793, according to Jury Verdict Research, which compiles the data and publishes it. For leg injuries, the median was $192,775.

If you think this sort of thing would never happen to you, keep in mind that if you don’t own a car, you’re probably a bit out of practice as a driver. Even if you’re careful, there are scores of jaywalkers to dodge in New York, where Zipcar has a lot of cars. Many of them are quite well off and would want their salaries replaced if you injured them gravely.

And if you’re in or near Boston, another big Zipcar city, you’re contending with the region’s aggressive drivers, all while navigating a street grid that seems to have been laid out according to the paths made by meandering animals or the American Indian hunters who chased them hundreds of years ago.

So let’s say there’s a million-dollar judgment against you. Will the lawyer for the person you have hurt or the family of someone you have killed settle for the $300,000 that Zipcar covers and then simply go away?

They might if you have no assets and seem unlikely to acquire any. Otherwise, beware. “If you have a young Wall Street stockbroker or someone with a really nice six-figure income or has big future earning potential, it is going to be a different case,” said Steven M. Gursten, a lawyer who has won the largest jury verdict for auto accident victims in Michigan in four of the last eight years. “In 16 years of doing this every single day, I’ve had a handful of doctors and others with multimillion-dollar houses and $50,000 in policy limits.”

Sure, you could declare bankruptcy and hope that keeps a lawyer from garnishing your wages from here to kingdom come. “But at that point, you’ve given up control of the situation and your life is in someone else’s hands,” said David Deehl, a lawyer in Miami who has led American Bar Association seminars for other auto accident specialists. “The bottom line is that it is not safe to assume that people will all go away. Some lawyers are stubborn, zealous advocates.”

If you want more coverage, you can buy something called a nonowner’s auto policy. Campbell Solberg Associates, a New York insurance broker, gave me a $200 quote this week on a Travelers policy that would offer $500,000 of liability coverage. Higher limits from other companies that offer this sort of policy wouldn’t cost too much more.

It would be much simpler, however, if Zipcar and Connect by Hertz would let people buy the insurance on a per-trip basis. Zipcar, in fact, already allows members to pay a little bit extra to avoid the possibility of paying a deductible in the event they damage the vehicle. So why don’t they let members make the same choice to buy better liability coverage?

“Never in 10 million drives has a single person had to come out of pocket” for a liability claim, said Rob Weisberg, Zipcar’s chief marketing officer. “Our coverage is two times our next-largest competitor, and our coverage is greater than most Americans have who insure their personally owned vehicles.”

That doesn’t make those Americans adequately covered. And the logic here strikes me as backward. Insurance is supposed to be for things that would be financially catastrophic. To sell protection against a three-figure fee while leaving members exposed to a seven-figure judgment doesn’t make much sense.

So if you’re a Zipcar member, as I am, now you know what the worst case looks like. Still feeling comfortable with the company’s coverage?

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