Valet needs to come through in a crunch

CONSUMING INTERESTS

August 10, 2008|By Dan Thanh Dang

Melia Wilkinson wasn't worried when she handed over the keys to her 2005 Toyota Sienna to the valet at the Sheraton City Center in downtown Baltimore last May.

All she was thinking about was making it to a work luncheon on time.

"I was running a little late, and every garage was full," said Wilkinson, 41, a marketing director and Baldwin resident. "The valet service was $20 or $30, a little expensive, but it was a hot, hot day. So I pulled in there. When I left the luncheon, I was pulled aside and told that there had been an accident, and there was some damage to the car."

Sure enough, the passenger door and rear panel of Wilkinson's gold van were crushed.

The valet service, Towne Park, immediately apologized, acknowledged responsibility and supplied her all the information she thought she would need to repair her vehicle. Unfortunately, the amount Towne Park estimated to repair the van was far less than the estimate Wilkinson got from her body shop.

"I wanted them to call the repair shop and discuss costs, but they were adamant about sticking by their estimate," Wilkinson said. "I don't want to have the body shop open up the car and have them start the work and then get denied by Towne Park for the entire cost of the work.

"If it was just a couple hundred dollars, I would have worked with them, but it's a lot more than that," Wilkinson said. "I just think this is so unfair. I'm not even in my car, I end up doing all the work and now I might end up paying for this. I may or may not get my money back, and I'll probably get a mark against me on my [insurance] record."

If you frequently use valet parking services, be mindful that this could happen to anyone. Some valet companies include statements on their ticket stubs saying they are not responsible for damage, theft or missing items. Before you hand your keys over, be aware of odious terms you might be agreeing to by using their service.

Getting back to Wilkinson, she said repeated calls to Towne Park and Sheraton were not returned. So after driving a marred van for upward of three weeks, she called me for help.

Wilkinson had her hands full. The estimate from her body shop was $3,800, including parts and labor. Property Damage Appraisers, the company used by Towne Park, estimated the job at about $1,600.

On top of the cost discrepancy, Wilkinson would also have to contend with having her insurance record dinged for the not-at-fault accident, which would eventually affect her premium. Under Maryland law, insurers can cancel your policy or refuse to renew it if you have three or more not-at-fault claims within three years. And since there are costs for the insurer to cover not-at-fault claims, those costs eventually factor into your rate.

There was nothing I could do about the record with her insurer, but I let Wilkinson know that she had a few options.

She could wash her hands of Towne Park, file a claim with her insurer and let it fight with the valet service's insurer. She'd have to pay her deductible, but if her insurer won the case, she could get reimbursed for her expenses.

Or Wilkinson could continue to pressure Towne Park to make her whole. Finally, she could also compile all her documents and sue Towne Park and Sheraton in small-claims court. I warned her that this was a tedious option.

I also suggested Wilkinson get another estimate.

Wilkinson decided to go with the first two options. She called her insurer and she got a second estimate that came in about $1,000 cheaper, a good middle ground between the first body shop's estimate and Towne Park's figure.

While she was doing her part, I started e-mailing Towne Park about Wilkinson's complaint. I also called the Sheraton. Why Sheraton? Because the hotel has leverage with its contractor.

In an initial call to Sheraton, I was told that the hotel is not responsible for Towne Park accidents. But a release form that the valet service wanted Wilkinson to sign - had she accepted their $1,600 estimate offer, that is - specifically states that the agreement would clear Towne Park and Sheraton of any claims or liability. I read that to mean that Sheraton could have some liability.

I also took note of Towne Park's Web site, which spelled out the level of service it provides to clients like Sheraton.

"If a vehicle is damaged, or a guest reports an item missing or harmed, we proceed until the claim is settled," Towne Park's Web site says. "Clients are kept informed, but not involved, unless they choose to be. All claim releases include both Towne Park and our client. Towne Park endeavors to settle claims promptly saving money and ensuring client and guest satisfaction."

Sheraton General Manager Chris Phillips was not pleased to know this problem was dragging on longer than necessary.

"It's perception," Phillips said. "It's a service that Sheraton contracts out, but the guest has a connection with us. We have a duty to make sure our guests are happy."

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