Can I get compensated for damage done at a car wash?

There is always a risk of vehicle damage when you have your car washed at a professional car wash center, whether it’s from debris, rocks, broken brushes, or any of the other dozens of moving parts in the washing unit. Recently on our legal forum a driver asked, “I took my car to get it washed, and it was damaged. The car repair center estimates it will cost $2,000 to repair. What are my options for getting the car wash center to pay for the damage caused by their machines?”

In many cases like these there is a question of what you should have done and what you actually did. In a perfect world you would be able to prove the owner of the car wash was negligent, they did not provide any waivers for liability, and they agreed to pay you for your loss. In an imperfect world, well, this may or may not happen.

First, let’s talk about what you should have done after the accident.

Steps to get payment for your vehicle damage

Ideally, if your car was damaged, you noticed the damage immediately after the car wash and before you left the premises. If this was the case, then hopefully you brought it to the manager’s attention and completed an incident report. Perhaps you also took photos of the damaged car with a camera which has a date/time stamp.

Maybe your luck was even better and the damaged pieces of your car were not only factory-installed and in working order (car washes may deny liability if the damaged car component is an after-market product), but they also fell off in the car wash!

But even if the part is not sitting in the car wash bay, assuming you took all of these steps and you have carefully collected evidence of the damage done at the car wash, you may be able to prove the management was negligent and the damage to your car was, in fact, caused by the car wash. This is especially true if the car company did not give you any statement waiving their liability or they did not have any signs posted claiming they are not responsible for damage to your car.

In this case, the next step is to send them an estimate of the repair cost, demand payment, and wait and see if you get a call from their insurance company. It could take some time to get a response. Follow up if you have not heard from them in a week or two. If they do decide to pay for the damage you may receive a cash settlement or you may have it fixed and have them pay the car repair company.

If they refuse to pay for the damage and the car wash is part of a franchise or associated with a larger company you can also follow up with the parent company.

If you don’t hear back from the insurance company or the business or franchise owner refuses to cover the cost of the damage, consider taking the business owner to small claims court.

Damaged not found until after you left the premises

Now, let’s look at a different more likely scenario. Let’s say you went through the car wash and didn’t notice the damage until you returned home or several days later. Now you’re in a tougher spot. Depending on the policy of the carwash, you may have difficulty getting them to pay for the damage, especially if they have a posted policy stating they are not responsible for damage to your vehicle.

Does this mean they were not negligent? No, but because you left the premises without bringing the damage to the attention of a manager it may be difficult to prove that the damage was caused by the car wash and didn’t simply occur on the way home or at a different location.

Is there a duty of care?

There is another issue which could trump all considerations described above, especially if your case ends up in small claims court.This is the issue of duty of care.

While it’s generally understood that a car wash owes you a duty of ordinary care not to damage your car while it’s in their possession, it’s not unusual for car wash companies to provide a disclaimer that limits their liability for damage done to your car.

In some cases, a court might rule that this disclaimer and your subsequent acceptance, is sufficient to waive your right to compensation. This could be an issue whether or not you left the premises or not.

If on the other hand, you are able to argue the disclaimer was ineffective and did not sufficiently eliminate the duty of care (e.g., the disclaimer was not clear on the receipt or the sign where it was posted was faded and illegible), you may argue it did not apply. If the court agrees they may decide the case in your favor.

Bottom Line:

Best case scenario, the car wash company has no disclaimer for liability, you talked to the manager on the premises immediately after noticing the damage, and he agreed to repay you.

Worst case scenario, the car wash has a valid waiver of liability which they can prove you accepted and you did not notice the damage until after you left the car wash. In this case you may have no way to prove the damage occurred at the car wash and you have also failed to prove they owed you a duty of care.

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