Two things you should understand before parking your car are the concepts of “bailment” and “chattel.” This excellent Deadspin story “Is A Parking Garage Really Not Liable If My Car Gets Damaged Of Stolen?” once defined bailment as “a special temporary relationship created when you transfer possession of a chattel (a piece of personal property) to another person, like a car with a valet.”
Dan Ralls, a practicing lawyer who wrote the Deadspin piece, noted that leaving your car with a valet creates “a valid bailment with a duty of ordinary care.” This means that when you hand your keys to a valet, they (and the garage) are assuming responsibility of your car.
Furthermore, as Ralls wrote, In New York, when someone brings a chattel back to its owner from a bailment and the chattel is damaged (or if it’s just missing), it’s generally a presumed case of gross negligence.
Now, your rights could differ from state to state, so before you use a garage, be sure to google them to see if anything is different from what’s described here.
Probably just a good idea to know the laws where you live anyway. Just as a bit of general advice.
1. Do a Walk-Around of the Car Before You Leave
Most garages are supposed to do a walk-around while they are filling out a claim ticket, but a lot don’t, which is why it’s important for you to keep tabs on the condition of your car before you leave it with the garage.
Take a walk-around of the car and make note of any existing scrapes or dings. Better yet, have the valet do it with you. If anything happens, it comes down to their word against yours, so it’s better if you have a witness with you.
Some garages will have a form for noting prior damage to the vehicle to fill out. If you can, get a copy of that form for yourself so no changes can be made to it, because garages usually hold onto that form for themselves.
2. Do a Walk-Around of the Car After You Come Back
One you come back to fetch your car, it’s crucial to do a walk-around after the valet brings it back out for you. Do it before you even get into the car and definitely before you leave the premises.
I’ve seen so many reviews of garages left by disgruntled customers who didn’t check their cars while at the garage and went home, only to discover a new scrape that hadn’t previously been there. Of course, then they call back to complain and the garage denies any wrongdoing because anything could have happened between the time of the customer leaving the garage and getting home. Which is fair!
It can feel extremely accusatory to conduct a close walk-around. Don’t let that get in the way of being thorough. In fact, don’t let other people waiting, rain or cold keep you from performing a very detailed check. Rushing is how you miss things.
3. Take Lots of Pictures
If you see a scrape, take many pictures. From multiple angles. Use your flash if you have to. Make doubly sure that it’s obvious where the damage is, its size and its seriousness. You might need these photos as evidence at some point.
Photos taken on a phone are also handy, because they include their time and date, both things that you might need to reference. A lot of camera-cameras record that too, but it’s helpful just to make sure.
4. Get a Witness
This was a point that Lehto stressed. “Get a witness,” he told me. “Make sure someone that works at the garage saw the damage with you, and make sure to get their name.”
Ideally, you’d ask to see the manager, as they are in charge of handling stuff like this, but if you can’t get a manager, get someone who works at the garage. Take down their name so you can reference them in the future.
And ask questions! As Real Valet Control points out, keep them talking and get as much information out of them as you can. Ask them if they know how the damage happened, where the car was parked, who else had driven the car and if they’d damaged other cars before.
5. Ask for a Damage Report
This is why you can pretty much ignore those “we’re not responsible for damage” signs you see hanging in garages. Garages typically have a protocol when it comes to these scrapes and dents, which is why most have damage reports that you can fill out. Those reports can include instructions that you can follow that will tell you what you can do to get your car repaired.
Mine, for example, wanted me to get estimates from three body shops and the garage would choose which shop it would reimburse me for. My garage also offered to contact three body shops of its choosing, but I had my own shops I trusted. I got the three estimates, sent them to the company that runs the garage, they chose a shop, I got the damage repaired, paid for it and provided the company with a receipt from the shop. I just cashed the reimbursement check the garage sent. It was kind of a hassle, getting those three estimates, but in the end I did get my money (a couple hundred bucks!) back.
When asking for the damage report, do so clearly and with authority. Those guys wronged you, so you are well within your rights to demand a way to make it right. You don’t need to scream at them, but you do need to be firm. Let them know that you won’t be jerked around.
Once you get that damage report, fill it out and have a manager sign and date it.
Keep meticulous records. Take down the time and date that everything happened and who you spoke to and dealt with. You want to make your case as airtight as possible if or when you need to elevate the issue to a higher-up.
Now, if your garage refuses to grant you a damage report, you have a few other options. You can file a police report, which might involve you taking the complaint to a small claims court. It sounds like a pain in the ass, but depending on the scale of the damage this might just be what you have to do to chase this stuff down.
Or you can get the insurance company involved. Garages usually are insured, but most of the time, they will just choose to pay out of pocket to avoid the trouble of filing a claim.
I’d like to also call out the obvious fact that I’m not a lawyer and that if something like this does happen, you should absolutely consult legitimate legal counsel. This post is just meant to highlight what worked for me and what might work for you, too. Also, this only applies to valet-only parking garages. Self-park garages are going to be different, and the Deadspin story I mentioned above has more on that.
The truth of the matter is that getting your car damaged is a s***** situation and it’s typically not easy to get people to pay up. But if you keep on them, you might be able to get some reparation out of it.