Third Circuit Affirms Denial of Motion to Compel Car Rental Class Action to Arbitration Based on Insufficiently Incorporated Arbitration Provisions

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

Seven plaintiffs filed a putative class action against a car rental company and its subsidiary for allegedly unauthorized charges incurred when the plaintiffs rented cars from the company. The car rental companies moved to compel the plaintiffs to arbitrate their claims under the Federal Arbitration Act based on an arbitration clause that, for six out of the seven plaintiffs (the “U.S. plaintiffs”), was located on the paper jacket into which rental associates folded the car rental agreement, and for the seventh plaintiff (the “Costa Rica plaintiff”), was located on the back of the agreement.

Each U.S. plaintiff signed below the final paragraph on the agreement, which provided: “I agree the charges listed above are estimates and that I have reviewed & agreed to all notices & terms here and in the rental jacket.” The rental associates, however, were not trained to alert customers to the additional terms in the rental jacket, and the rental associates did not say anything about the rental jacket when the U.S. plaintiffs reviewed their agreements. Additionally, five U.S. plaintiffs used websites to reserve their car rentals, each of which had terms of use that included an arbitration provision. Regarding the agreement signed by the Costa Rica plaintiff, the front and back sides of the document both had signature lines, but the Costa Rica plaintiff signed only the front.

The district court denied the car rental companies’ motion to compel arbitration. The court found: (1) the U.S. plaintiffs did not assent to the arbitration provision in the rental jacket; (2) the record was not sufficiently developed with respect to the arbitration clause on the websites; and (3) a disputed factual issue existed as to whether the Costa Rica plaintiff was on reasonable notice of the arbitration provision.

On appeal, the Third Circuit found that it possessed jurisdiction over all three of the above issues under the FAA. The Third Circuit then determined that the rental car companies failed to demonstrate that the rental jacket containing the arbitration provision was incorporated into the U.S. agreements based on applicable state contract law. The agreement did not define or clearly describe the rental jacket, and there was no evidence that the plaintiffs were aware of the arbitration provision before they executed the agreement.

The court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that the plaintiffs who booked online agreed to each website’s terms of use and arbitration provision or that the district court erred in excluding unauthenticated evidence concerning the websites. Finally, the court affirmed the district court’s ruling that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the Costa Rica plaintiff had reasonable notice of the arbitration provision on the back of the car rental agreement. The court noted that the front side of the agreement did not direct the customer to the back of the agreement (containing the arbitration provision) or inform the customer of the terms. The Third Circuit therefore affirmed the district court’s refusal to compel arbitration.

Bacon v. Avis Budget Group, Inc., No. 18-3780 (3d Cir. May 18, 2020).

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