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Car renters try again to limit their liability

In a perennially volatile issue, car rental companies are trying again to cap their legal liability when customers are involved in crashes.

Rental company lobbyists, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and two House members held a news conference Monday to push a proposal limiting liability in car crashes to $100,000 per injured person and $300,000 per crash. Budget Rent-A-Car and Avis Rent-A-Car are spearheading the effort.

Florida is one of only 10 states that allow people involved in crashes to sue the vehicle owner for an unlimited amount when someone else is driving, even if nothing was wrong with the vehicle. It's known as "vicarious liability" and can cost rental car companies millions of dollars.

Fort Lauderdale-based Alamo Rent a Car, for example, was ordered in 1989 to pay $7.7-million for a fatal Alligator Alley crash involving a British sailor who fell asleep at the wheel, killing himself and two others.

Rep. Jack Ascherl, chairman of the House Insurance Committee, said any car ownerwho lets a friend borrow the keys could be sued for an unlimited amount under the law. He said auto insurance rates are artificially inflated because it exists.

"We're trying to level the playing field and do it based on reality," said Ascherl, D-New Smyrna Beach.

Predictably, trial lawyers oppose any change in the 75-year-old law, saying rental car companies are seeking greater profits at the expense of customer safety.

"There's absolutely no safeguards about who they rent to," said Phil Frieden, president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. "They want to make more profit."

Dick Batchelor, lobbyist for Budget, said lawmakers should support this year's measure because, unlike past efforts, it doesn't seek repeal of the law.

Batchelor said the major benefit of the change would be lower insurance rates for smaller rental car companies and the average citizen.