In Las Vegas for a fun weekend, the defendant rented a Dodge Viper. The short version: it broke. Three years later, he was in court facing a $33K lawsuit for repairs. What really happened?


The story starts with three brothers and a family friend deciding to fly to Las Vegas for a reunion. One of the brothers thought it would be fun to drive around in an exotic sports car, so he found a local rental company and rented a 6-speed manual transmission Dodge Viper. After he filled out the required paper work (which included the usual “you break it, you bought it” warnings) and arranged for payment, he drove it off the lot. A few blocks later, he pulled over to the side of the road and called the rental company on his cell phone. He told them that the clutch felt soft, with the pedal too close to the floor, and that something was wrong with the car.  The rental company representative replied that all of their cars were thoroughly checked out when the vehicles were returned by their clients and, again, before they were given to new renters. Therefore there was nothing to be concerned about and go ahead and enjoy the ride. He reluctantly accepted the assurances and drove in stop-and-go traffic back to the hotel to enjoy the rest of the evening.

The next day, the defendant and one of his brothers climbed into the Viper and headed out for a drive. There was a nearby, particular scenic twisting canyon road that they wanted to check out, so off they went. Traffic was heavy. Not stop-and-go, but not unrestricted either. The traffic flow was at the speed limit or less. After a few minutes, they pulled off the road, turned off the Viper, got out, and took photos. Photo op completed, they got back in, and the driver prepared to pull out into traffic. He pulled out in first gear and then shifted to second. As he let out the clutch in second, there was a grinding sound and no engagement. Repeated attempts to shift into second were fruitless, and now it would not shift into first either. They pulled over to the side of the road and called the rental company for help. A couple of hours later, a private tow company showed up with a trailer, winched the Viper on board, and they returned to the rental company.

At the rental company, the driver was asked to sign a damage report, accepting responsibility for repairs that they thought would be needed. He refused because he felt that it was not his fault. The conversation did not end amicably. In the week following, the renter attempted to get a refund of his money. That did not happen. The guys finished their vacation and went home.

In the months that followed, the vehicle was repaired and returned to service. The rental company sent a bill to the renter for the repair costs. He forwarded it to his insurance company. His insurance company reviewed the repair bill and their policy coverage provisions and decided that the repairs were not covered under his insurance policy. They declined coverage.

Fast forward the story three years, as litigation began. The insurance company declined coverage of the loss, but decided that their insured was not at fault, so they took up his legal defense. At this point, GEI was engaged by the insurance company to review the case and provide advice to the defense counsel. More fast forwarding: the plaintiffs lost in arbitration, but appealed, so the case went to trial.

Our expert reviewed the depositions of the various parties, as well as various exhibits including maintenance histories, a Carfax report, and the repair invoices. He concluded, and testified before the jury, that there was no evidence presented that the defendant abused the Viper or otherwise caused or contributed to the damages.

High points from his analysis, report, and testimony were as follows:

· The defendant had driven Vipers previously and knew what a normal clutch felt like.
· Carfax showed two previous transmission repairs.
· A careful inspection of the tires and wheels by the plaintiff when the Viper was returned showed zero abuse by the defendant. Tires and wheels are the first place to look when abuse is suspected.
· The defendant drove a total of 68 miles. When he turned it in, it was not drivable. When it arrived at the shop for repairs, it had an additional 5 more miles on the odometer. How was that possible, and who added those miles?
· The repair invoice had no clutch related items.
· The damage was to 5th and 6th gear. These would not have been used in city traffic. Third gear was the highest gear used by the defendant.
· The loss-of-use fee was unreasonable at $495 per day for 49 days (when it took 8 hours of labor to repair it).

What was the jury verdict?

The jury found for the defense. The defendant was found not liable for the transmission damages to the Viper or for the 49 days of loss of use.


Expert of the Month: Tom Lepper
 Mr. Lepper’s areas of expertise include auto/tractor trailer/RV/motorcycle, vehicular component failures, brakes, suspension, power trains, air bags, fuel systems, vehicular fire cause and origin, tire failure analysis, and vehicle theft and forced entry issues. He has been involved with automobiles and racecars, which he drives, for more than thirty years. He is a Sports Car Club of America, and Porsche Club of America, Safety Technical Inspector, and a member of the Southwestern Association of Technical Accident Investigators. He has completed seminars in Bosch CDR technology, Vehicle Fires (Lee S. Cole and Associates), Tire Failure and Analysis (National Police Training Institute), and Accident Reconstruction and Low Speed Impact Classes (Southwestern Association of Technical Accident Investigators). He has handled more than five thousand cases relating to issues involving automobile component failures, thefts, or fires. His experience includes extensive photography and video use. He has extensive deposition and trial experience where his hands-on experience is very effective. He is also a Bosch Certified Event Data Recorder Technician.