Off key: Paying to haul a U-Haul

When Demetris Shabazz left Zion Crossroads Self Storage, she says, she was shaking her head in amazement. What might have been a simple transaction– renting a U-Haul truck– had taken a bizarre turn. The employee, she claims, seemed more interested in learning whether she was Muslim or Christian than in ensuring she rented Shabazz a road-worthy vehicle.

Shabazz rented the 17-foot truck last October 18 to move a piano and other large items from Fluvanna County to Petersburg. She had hired Clifton Allen to help her, and Allen supports Shabazz's account of the events.

Both allege that three things happened. First, the employee, Jane (she refused to give her last name), told them she had two 17-foot trucks, but that one was smoking and leaking oil. Second, Shabazz emphasized that she didn't want that truck. And third, at some point in the transaction Jane asked whether Shabazz was Muslim or Christian.

Shabazz and Allen loaded the truck and got on the road– but, after about eight miles, it broke down. Charlottesville Wrecker, which had a contract with U-Haul, towed the truck back to Zion Crossroads Self Storage– but, according to Shabazz, it was towed at an angle. As a result, she claims the load– including an antique piano– shifted and caused extensive damage to the contents.

Shabazz filed a claim for $4,737 with Republic Western Insurance, U-Haul's insurance carrier. The claim was denied, and Shabazz was told that because the damage occurred while the truck was being towed, liability lay with Charlottesville Wrecker's insurance carrier, T.M. Everette Claim Service.

According to Shabazz, the adjuster she spoke with at Everette denied liability and pushed responsibility back to Republic Western. That's where matters stood when, five months after the ill-fated move, Shabazz contacted me.

I began by speaking with Paul Harris, area field manager for U-Haul. He terminated U-Haul's relationship with Zion Crossroads Self Storage, he says, because he received "lots of complaints" about Jane. One problem, he claims, is that she failed to properly check trucks' condition when they were returned. Jane "never should have put a customer in that truck," he said.

Jane adamantly denies that she gave Shabazz the problem truck and that she asked about Shabazz's religion. Shabazz, she claims, had come by several months earlier to get information, and had joined her in watching a preacher on TV. That sparked a discussion of religion. Shabazz insists this never happened.

"I knew she was a Christian," Jane said, and therefore would not have inquired while renting Shabazz the truck. As for Shabazz's complaints, she commented, "She's a so-called Christian– I can't believe she would do this."

I started to feel like I had tumbled down a rabbit hole when I began calling the various insurance companies. First, Joanne Fried, director of media and public relations at Republic Western, told me that liability rested with the towing company.

Accordingly, I called David Malone at T.M. Everette Claim Service, the same person Shabazz says she'd contacted. He refused to comment and said Shabazz should take the matter to the State Corporation Commission's Department of Insurance.

I went back to Fried, who said she'd never heard of Malone or T.M. Everette; General Casualty is Charlottesville Wrecker's insurance carrier. Fried also referred me to Anne Smith, General Casualty's communications manager, who reported that the case is not, in fact, closed. Due to confidentiality, however, she could not give details– but said that an adjuster had called Shabazz. Shabazz denies this.

Fried also emailed to say that Republic Western has learned that Charlottesville Wrecker does not have the insurance coverage U-Haul requires in its contract, and will not be used again. An adjuster at Republic Western has contacted Shabazz to, in Fried's words, "advise her of the options she has available to settle her claim."

When and if Shabazz ever gets resolution of this frustrating, confusing, and expensive situation, I'll let you know.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.#