Who Pays for Haunted Car Wash Damage?

Lena Borrelli
Lena Borrelli
Contributing Writer
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Over the last few years, car washes across the country have put a new spin on Halloween — a haunted car wash with fog, lights, sounds and props, as well as characters in costume who’ll dry and buff your car. Thanks to Covid-19, this year’s haunted car washes will be contact-free as far as humans are concerned. But what happens if your vehicle sustains damages from the car wash machinery, or if the costumed character get a little carried away? Who pays for the damages — the car wash owner, your car insurance, or you?

[ Read: The Best Car Insurance Companies ]

The answer is not as simple as you might expect.

What Actually Happens at a Haunted Car Wash?

Every location has a different take on the celebration. Some show movies beforehand as a precursor to entry or simply to provide entertainment value as you wait in lines snarled around the block. Most also employ the use of animatronics, in addition to costumed actors like Russell Fischer’s Car Care in California, which uses real actors from Knott’s Farm. 

They will do their best to terrify you as they press up against windows and squirt water in your car and in your open windows. As you pay and wait, there are clowns that stalk you, later jumping out from behind massive brushes and blowers as you make your way through the wash.

Pony Express employee Gabriel McDonald says of his employer’s haunted car wash in Idaho, “This is definitely a way to get out into the community and have a fun experience while being able to stay in your own vehicle and stay out of contact is really important, so I think what we’re doing is really important.”

“This year has been particularly difficult for many in our community,” says Anthony Bencivenni, District Manager of Rainforest Car Wash in Brunswick, Ohio. “In light of that, we feel it’s critical to provide an opportunity for our local families to enjoy special moments, have fun together, and make lasting memories.”

“We have people in various positions throughout the tunnel peeling soap away, scaring people, we have various props and scenes set up,” describes an employee at Rainforest Car Wash in Brunswick, Ohio to CNN affiliate WEWS. 

It will all be contact-free, promises Bencivenni of Rainforest Car Wash. “This event is one of the few things you can do this Halloween that is completely safe,” he says in a press release. “Each participant will get to escape from the day-to-day for a little while to enjoy the event from the comfort of their vehicle. 

With COVID fees temporarily assuaged, some car owners are worried about the state of their vehicle throughout the madness. It turns out they have a right to worry.

These are some of the haunted car washes we found during our research:

The Risks of a Haunted Car Wash

A haunted car wash took the blame for a four-vehicle accident in Houston, Texas, 2018, right in front of its doors that sent one man to the hospital. According to ABC13, “Deputies say the strobe lights and smoke from the car wash may have distracted some of the drivers in the crash.”

The impact on nearby traffic is not the only risk you face. There are also the normal risks of a regular car wash. “While drive-through ‘haunted’ car washes are 2020’s version of walking through a haunted house, there have been reports of vehicles being damaged (seemingly by ghosts) while driving through what appeared to be a normal car wash on a normal day,” says Kevin Quinn, Vice President of Claims and Customer Experience at Mercury Insurance.

There are a few ways that a car wash can harm your car:

  • Dirty brushes can cause scratches.
  • Dirt and rocks from a previous wash can scratch and dent.
  • Wayward debris can get knocked around and into your car. 
  • The antenna can snap off.
  • The wheels and undercarriage may experience damage on the tracks.

“Common car-wash-related damages often include scratched or chipped paint, especially if the car wash in question uses brushes rather than cloths, as well as damages to mirrors or antennas if the driver does not take proper precautions, such as retracting or folding them in,” says Quinn.

[ Read: What is Full Coverage Car Insurance? ]

Still, Auto Blog considers automatic and drive-thru car washes a safe choice. “In many instances, they are the safest course of action for many car owners who want to keep their car clean.”

Meanwhile, one car wash in Huntington Beach has solved the COVID conundrum by issuing a waiver to all participants. The waiver “disclaims voluntary assumption of risk of injury,” as well as accepting responsibility for any potential exposure to coronavirus. 

Who Pays for Haunted Car Wash Damages?

Haunted car washes are something of a new novelty that’s only just emerged in recent years. This could be why there haven’t been many cases or instances of significant damage yet, so your best option is to proceed with caution.

Even on a normal day, the specifics of who pays for what are still a little foggy. WashTec, a car wash manufacturer, warns car wash owners on its site that “The law says that customers have a right to have their car washed without having to accept any damage to it.”

That’s not always the case. “One case that we experienced at Mercury Insurance was from a driver who experienced damage to his truck’s camper shell,” Quinn remembers. “As he took his vehicle through the automatic car wash, his truck started jumping up and down, and he heard a loud bang, followed by shattering of the safety glass of the camper shell’s windshield. Instead of automatically stopping due to a problem, the car wash continued to operate. In this particular case, several other drivers had also commented that they experienced damages from this same car wash, such as side mirrors or windshield wipers ripped off during the wash.”

There have been many cases in the past where car wash damages have been handled differently. 

Hensley Legal Group takes a deeper dive into car wash liability. “The owner of a car wash has a duty to provide reasonable care and make their property safe for customers,” it states. “This means providing detailed instructions for how to use the car wash, training employees to answer customer questions and follow safety guidelines, and regularly repairing and updating the car wash equipment.”

The firm continues, “If the car wash owner fails to keep their property safe for customers, then they have been negligent. If you can prove their negligence led to your car being damaged, then you could have the case for premises liability.”

They demonstrate a few different scenarios:

  • There are no signs showing where or how to drive your car onto the automated track. 
  • You enter the car wash incorrectly and the track damages your rims. In this case, the owner could be liable because they didn’t meet the standard of care expected of property owners.
  • If equipment malfunctions and damages your car, you must prove that the owner knew in advance and did not take action to repair it. Only if you can prove that the owner was negligent could you have a basis for a premises liability claim.
  • Even if you sign a waiver, you could still be entitled to compensation for damages if you can prove that they were negligent. 

Hensley brings up an interesting point where employees are concerned, as many car washes hire employees to handle services like detailing or interior cleaning. In this case, the car wash owner is liable for their actions and that means responsibility for errant employees.

“The car wash owner is responsible for hiring employees with adequate experience, and for training them if needed,” says the law group. “If a negligent employee damages the interior or exterior of your car, you could hold the car wash owner responsible because the employee was acting on behalf of the car wash.”

To specifically address the concerns of a haunted house, we heard from David Reischer, Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com. He explains the importance of assumed risk and how it impacts liability. “’Assumption of risk’ means that a person willingly entered the haunted location to be scared,” he explains. “A person seeking compensation for injuries that are caused in a haunted house or a haunted car wash will depend upon whether the visitor knew the car wash was haunted and ‘assumed the risk.’”

In the case of a haunted car wash, it all depends. While visitors willingly enter to be scared, it does remain a secret exactly what is in store. 

“A haunted house or a haunted car wash has potential for uniquely unexpected injuries or damage to property, and a person that visits the location willingly with knowledge of the supernatural occurrences that occur,” he explains. “If a person has an idea of the possible harm that may result when they visit the haunted location, then they take on the risk.”

[ Read: Car Insurance Buyer’s Guide ]

How to Handle Haunted Car Wash Damages

If you’re worried about potential damages, there are some things you can do to better protect your vehicle. 

  1. Check car wash policies.

Most car washes will avoid trouble by posting a sign with all establishment rules and policies. Be sure to clearly read any signage for deals on property damage and liability. 

  1. Inspect your car.

Before departing the premises, find somewhere to pull over safely on the side. Carefully check your car in case there are any damages from the haunted thrill ride.

  1. Inform staff immediately.

  If you find any damage from the haunted car wash, notify staff immediately. If you don’t report the incident immediately, then you will have no way of proving that this happened at the actual car wash.

  1. Complete an incident report.

An incident report will help document the accident, showing that damages occurred on the premises. You will need to submit a copy to your insurance company should you need to 

  1. Check your auto insurance policy.

“Damage occurring in a car wash is typically covered under your auto policy,” says Quinn, which is reason enough to check the fine print of your policy or call up a representative. 

Still, Quinn acknowledges that “the best way to prevent vehicle damage from a car wash is to follow all posted signs about precautions to take.

The Bottom Line

Coronavirus has brought enough real-life scares that Americans are in need of some light merriment more than ever. Across the United States, car washes are transforming their facilities into a ghoulish playground full of fun surprises and scary thrills. Just proceed with extra caution because at the end of the day, there’s no guarantee that you will be reimbursed for any damages that occur to your vehicle, turning your fun foray into a real-life nightmare really fast.

Photo by MediaNews Group/Orange County Register / Gettyimages