Drained in Nelson: Motel dip grabs a VW Golf

"It's like Mayberry," Tim Carr says. He's describing nearby Lovingston, where he recently had just the kind of experience Andy and Barney might have been called in to mediate. If they had, of course, the show would have ended with Gomer setting out to fix Carr's 2004 Volkswagen Golf, and handshakes all around as the theme music swells.

In real life, however, no one's shaking hands, and unless he takes legal action and a judge rules in his favor, Carr will be paying a $250 deductible and hoping his insurance rates won't go up.

Carr was cruising down Route 29 on the first leg of a cross-country trip on the evening of Sunday, September 26, when he saw a sign for Lovingston. That's where his doctor is located, and it struck him that getting a flu shot before continuing his pilgrimage would be wise.

Carr found "a cute motel built to give the look and feel of Switzerland." He checked in to the Village Inn, had dinner nearby at Vito's, and spent a pleasant night.

The next day was rainy, so instead of going out for that flu shot, he stayed put– in his "warm, cozy, and comfortable" room. He estimates that he left the room only twice. The second trip, that evening, was for dinner at the Lovingston CafĂ©.

It was dark when he returned, but he could see that a car was parked in the space in front of his room, the space he'd vacated when he went to dinner. Carr claims that he was traveling "about one mile an hour" and aiming for an adjacent space when... "Wham! I was in free fall."

Carr estimates that his car "plummeted" about three feet into a hidden obstacle. When he got out to investigate, he realized he'd driven over a large drain built into a slope in the asphalt parking lot. As Carr describes it, the drop-off "tore the bottom out" of his car and caused $850 worth of damage.

Carr complained to Village Inn owner Sam Madhiwala, but he claims Madhiwala replied that there was nothing he could do– then pointed out a statement on the registration card Carr had signed, which absolves the motel of responsibility for any damages.

Madhiwala showed me the same statement when I went to inspect the parking lot; he also claimed that this was the first time the drain had caused a problem– then abruptly ended the interview.

I spoke with former Village Inn owner Carol Dziak, who says that in the 11 years she and her husband owned and operated the inn (they sold it to Madhiwala in 2000), they never had a problem. When I asked whether they'd thought of cordoning off that spot, or somehow warning drivers, she stated that they couldn't think of a way to do it "without creating a worse hazard."

After surveying the parking lot and drain, I asked Carr why he hadn't noticed the drop-off earlier; his room, after all, was directly in front of it. He pointed out that from most angles, the sudden decline is either invisible or appears not to be so extreme. Moreover, he was in an unfamiliar parking lot in the dark.

(For pictures of the parking lot and drain, check out his website dedicated to the accident, iron-bound.com/damage).

According to Carr, his insurance company, Geico, has stated that they intend to pursue Madhiwala for repair costs beyond Carr's $250 deductible, but Madhiwala disputes this and says the Geico employee he spoke with said that the company would not, in fact, attempt to collect from him.

Carr, meanwhile, is staying with his brother in Charlottesville while he gets his car fixed. Since legal action would mean delaying his odyssey even longer– and since Lovingston isn't Mayberry– I expect he'll pay the $250 and be done with it.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.