Avoiding a parking valet nightmare

Linda Melone

When you hand over your car keys to a valet parking attendant, you trust that person won't crash your car or steal anything inside. You also hope to get it in back in the same shape as when you left it.

Problem is, that's not always the case.

If you discover damage or missing items, it's often not easy to prove when the damage was done or whose insurance foots the bill: yours, the valet company's or the hotel's or restaurant's, says Philip Farina, a security expert who is CEO of Farina and Associates Ltd.  "An investigation determines who is responsible," Farina says.

Reimbursement may come through an insurance policy taken out by the business, the victim or a combination of the two. Or the business may issue a check directly to the victim.

Award-winning damage

When Nicole Dunn attended an Emmy Awards event in Los Angeles, she didn't notice the giant scrape on the side of her car until the next morning. The hotel's valet parked her car in a small underground space.

"The worst part was that I handed him a good tip, he gave me a big smile and watched me drive away," says Dunn, who believes the valet was aware of the damage when he brought the car to her.

Once she discovered the scrape, Dunn returned to the hotel. She and the hotel manager went down to the garage together to check the location of the mishap. Fortunately for Dunn, the hotel keeps a log of where cars are parked. "There was a pole next to my parking spot with my car's paint on it," Dunn says.

The valet parking service agreed to pay the $1,200 paint repair bill. This saved her from filing a claim with her car insurance company, which  would have likely caused an increase in her premiums.

Figuring out who pays

Dunn lucked out, but finding the guilty party isn't always so easy. Often, the victim is on the hook for the damage -- and eventually could be on the hook for higher insurance premiums.

If you have optional collision coverage for your car, your policy would pay for the damage, says Kevin Foley, owner of PFT&K Insurance Brokers in Milltown , N.J. "If you do not have (collision) coverage or don't want to use it, you can pursue the valet service or hospitality company," Foley says.

For a valet company or a hotel to agree to pay for damage to your car, you must have proof (as Dunn did) that it's responsible for the loss. Also, the valet company or whatever business parked your car must have "garage keepers coverage," which protects businesses against claims arising from damage to cars they don't own.

If the business is responsible and does not have this type of coverage, then payment for the loss will have to come from the business itself, according to Foley.

The valet perspective

At Party Parking Valet Service in Los Angeles, if someone claims an item is missing or that a car has been damaged, the company turns the information over to its insurance company, says Marcia Middendorf, general manager. Middendorf says the valet service follows the same procedures even if the company thinks it's not at fault.

"It's up to the insurance company to make a final decision on the claim," she says.

Middendorf points out that most drivers fail to read their valet claim tickets, which state that the valet company is "not responsible for lost items or for previous mechanical damage, but we leave it up to the insurance company to handle each case."

Middendorf, whose employees are thoroughly screened before being hired, says most "stolen" items, such as sunglasses and iPods, often turn up the next day, sometimes under a car seat. Farina says most hotels and valet organizations have measures in place designed to "lessen the opportunity" for criminals to steal from valet-parked cars.

What to do if you are a victim

Regardless of who may be at fault, a police report should be filed, Farina says. A police report will be needed during the insurance claims process. Contact a hotel manager, a restaurant manager or a valet manager if you suspect damage to or theft from your car.

Remember that you may need to produce proof, such as a sales receipt, showing that you bought an item that ended up being stolen. In the case of damage to your car, you'll most likely need to get repair estimates from several auto shops to help substantiate your claim, Farina says.

Take steps to protect yourself

Before leaving your car with a valet and after your car has been returned, keep in mind these tips:

  1. Many newer cars have a valet key that doesn’t allow access to the trunk. If you must keep valuables in the car, shift them to the trunk and use the valet key.
  2. Keep high-value or sensitive items with you, such as laptops or documents. If you're staying at a hotel, always store them in a hotel-provided safe or safe deposit box.
  3. Inspect your car after getting it back from the valet but before leaving. You stand a much greater chance of being reimbursed for damage or missing items if you can document that while your car remains under the control of the valet, according to Farina.

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