Budget Car and Van Rentals
1.1 This dispute concerns a complaint by Mr. Mark Kearney that he was discriminated against by Budget Car and Van Rental on the disability ground in terms of Sections 3(1)(a) and 3(2)(g) of the Equal Status Act, 2000 in not being provided with a service which is generally available to the public contrary to Section 5(1) of the Equal Status Act, 2000.
2. Summary of the Complainant's Case
2.1 The complainant, who resides in England, suffers from a disability affecting his hands and feet and has a number of digits missing from each of these limbs. He is employed in the motor industry and through his work has had experience of driving a wide range of different types of vehicles. The complainant has held a full driving licence since 1978 and his disability does not require him to drive a specially modified or adapted car. The complainant and his girlfriend were due to attend a wedding in Ireland on 27th December, 2003 and he made a reservation for flights for them both to arrive into Shannon Airport on this date and to return to England on 29th December, 2003. This reservation was made through the Aer Lingus website on 28th October, 2003 and it also included a reservation for car hire with the respondent. The complainant received confirmation of the car hire reservation from the respondent by e-mail on 28th October, 2003. The complainant went to the respondent's desk on arrival at Shannon Airport on 27th December, 2003 to collect the hire car that he had reserved and presented his full driving licence to the member of staff on duty. However, he was informed by Mr. Noel Daniels, Assistant Location Manager with the respondent, that there had been a mix up with the Aer Lingus reservation and that there wasn't a car available for him. When the complainant argued that he had already paid for the car hire in advance and that he had confirmation of the reservation from the respondent, he was informed by Mr. Daniels that the car would have to be an automatic. Mr. Daniels then informed the complainant that no other company would hire a car to him and stated that the respondent couldn't hire a car to him because he was disabled and that it was illegal to hire cars to people like him. The complainant stated that he became annoyed at this stage and was informed by Mr. Daniels on a number of occasions that the decision regarding whether or not to hire the car was not up to him.
2.2 The complainant's girlfriend, Ms. Mary Sweeney, who was accompanying him on the trip, approached the respondent's desk on becoming aware of the difficulties and was asked by Mr. Daniels if she had a full driving licence. When Ms. Sweeney responded that she didn't have her driving licence with her, Mr. Daniels endeavoured to contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea by telephone to verify details of her licence. While Mr. Daniels was trying to make contact with the DVLA, Ms. Sweeney found her driving licence and Mr. Daniels suggested that the car be hired to her as an alternative. The car that the complainant had reserved was subsequently hired to Ms. Sweeney, who stated that she was an inexperienced driver and therefore, was very uncomfortable having to drive the car throughout the duration of their stay in Ireland. The complainant informed Mr. Daniels that he was very unhappy with the treatment he had been afforded and indicated that he would be taking the matter further. The complainant stated that he has hired cars in other countries on numerous occasions in the past and that he has never encountered any difficulties in doing so because of his disability. The complainant submitted that Mr. Daniel's decision to refuse to provide him with the hire car was taken purely on the basis of his disability and he contends that Mr. Daniels was clearly not qualified to make an assessment regarding his capability to drive a car. The complainant and his girlfriend were late for the wedding as a result of the difficulties that they had encountered with the respondent.
3. Summary of the Respondent's Case
3.1 The respondent submitted that it has operated a car hire franchise for Budget Car Rental in a number of locations throughout Ireland and England since 1985. Mr. David O'Malley, Accountant for the respondent, outlined details of the requirements that a person must satisfy in order to hire a car from the respondent, namely the person must have an unendorsed full driving licence for two or more years and be between the age of 23 and 75 years. The respondent submitted that it is necessary in certain circumstances to make an assessment of a person that wishes to hire a car in order to determine if they are covered for insurance purposes to drive the vehicle. By way of example, the respondent submitted that it reserves the right to refuse service to a person that appears to be intoxicated or suffering from fatigue when they present at a location to collect the hire car. The respondent submitted that it provides a car hire service for people with disabilities and it confirmed that it is not necessary for a person with a disability to comply with any additional requirements in order to hire a car from it.
3.2 The respondent submitted that it was experiencing difficulties with reservations that had been made through the Aer Lingus website in December, 2003. The respondent did not have a record of the complainant's reservation when he presented at its desk in Shannon Airport on 27th December, 2003 in order to collect the hire car. Mr. Noel Daniels, Assistant Location Manager, stated that he attended the complainant on this occasion and that the complainant provided him with confirmation of the reservation that he had made. Mr. Daniels was satisfied that the complainant had a valid reservation, however when he noticed that the complainant had a disability affecting his hands, it raised concerns regarding his ability to drive the type of car that he had reserved. Mr. Daniels informed the complainant about his concerns and explained that it would not be possible to hire a car to him until he obtained confirmation regarding the issue of the insurance cover from the respondent's insurance company. However, it was not possible to obtain the required confirmation on this particular occasion as it was a Saturday during the Christmas holidays. Mr. Daniels subsequently decided that he could not hire the car to the complainant because of his concerns for the safety of the complainant and other road users and he emphatically denied that he informed the complainant that he wouldn't hire a car to a person with a disability and that it was illegal to do so.
3.3 Mr. Daniels was aware that the complainant and his girlfriend were in a rush to get to the wedding and he made every effort to accommodate them and sought confirmation from Ms. Sweeney as to whether she had a full driving licence with her, so that the car could be hired to her instead of the complainant. When Ms. Sweeney confirmed that she didn't have her licence, Mr. Daniels attempted to contact the DVLA in Swansea to verify details of her licence. However, during the course of this telephone conversation Ms. Sweeney located her licence and the car was subsequently hired out to her instead of the complainant. Mr. Daniels apologised to the complainant for any distress or inconvenience caused and explained that he was acting in the best interests of all concerned. Mr. Daniels stated that he was of the opinion that the complainant understood why he had taken this action, however the complainant did indicate that he would be referring the matter to the respondent's head office. The respondent denies that it discriminated against the complainant on the grounds of his disability and submitted that the decision not to hire the car to him was taken purely on the basis of its concerns regarding the complainant's insurance cover to drive the vehicle.
4. Conclusions of the Equality Officer
4.1 The complainant in this case has grounded his complaint on the basis of his stated disability. At the outset, the burden of proof rests with the complainant. I must, therefore, consider whether the complainant in this case, has established a prima facie case of discrimination. In order to do so the complainant must satisfy three criteria. (1) It must be established that he is covered by the relevant discriminatory ground i.e. in this case that he has a disability. (2) It must also be established that the actions complained of actually occurred and (3) it must be shown that the treatment of the complainant was less favourable than the treatment that would be afforded to another person in similar circumstances who was not disabled nor had a different disability. If the complainant succeeds in establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden of proof then shifts to the respondent who must then rebut the case of the complainant if his defence is to succeed.
4.2 The first test set out above is whether the complainant, Mark Kearney is covered by the disability ground, i.e. is he considered disabled according to the definition of disability set down by the Equal Status Acts, 2000-2004. In the Act
"disability" means --
(a) the total or partial absence of a person's bodily or mental functions, including the absence of a part of a person's body,
(b) the presence in the body of organisms causing, or likely to cause, chronic disease or illness,
(c) the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of a person's body,
(d) a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction, or
(e) a condition, disease or illness which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement or which results in disturbed behaviour;
The complainant suffers from a disability that affects his hands and feet and as a result is missing a number of digits from each of these limbs. I am satisfied that this condition constitutes a disability within the meaning set out above and that therefore, Mr. Kearney is a person with a disability within the terms of the Equal Status Acts, 2000-2004. This fact satisfies the first of the three criteria set out above.
4.3 The second test that of whether the incident complained of actually occurred is my next consideration. In this case it is not disputed by the parties that the complainant had a valid reservation to hire a car from the respondent and it is also common case that the respondent refused to provide the complainant with this car when he presented at its desk in Shannon Airport in order to collect the vehicle. Accordingly, this satisfies the second criterion set out above. The third criterion to be satisfied in order for the complainant to establish a prima facie case of discrimination is that of less favourable treatment, i.e. he must show that the treatment he received was less favourable than that which would have been given to another person in similar circumstances who either did not have a disability or had a different disability. The respondent accepts that the complainant had made a reservation to hire a car and that he satisfied all of the standard requirements it imposed on a person in order to make a valid reservation. When the complainant presented at the respondent's desk in Shannon Airport on 27th December, 2003 it became apparent to Mr. Daniels that he had a disability. Mr. Daniels contends that he became concerned at this stage regarding the complainant's capability to drive the car and whether or not he would be covered by the respondent's insurance to drive the vehicle. The respondent submitted that Mr. Daniels was unable to obtain confirmation from the respondent's insurance company regarding the complainant's insurability and it was therefore decided not to hire the car to him. It is accepted by both parties that the respondent proceeded to hire the car to the complainant's girlfriend who was not suffering from a disability. I am satisfied therefore that the complainant has established that he was treated less favourably than a person without a disability was in the same circumstances, as his girlfriend, a person without a disability, was provided with a hire car by the respondent while he was not. Accordingly, I find that the complainant has established a prima facie case of discrimination on the disability ground.
5. The Respondent's Rebuttal
5.1 The respondent denies that it discriminated against the complainant on the grounds of his disability and submitted that the decision not to provide him with the hire car on the date in question was taken as a result of the fact it was unable to obtain clarification from its insurers that the complainant was covered to drive the vehicle. The respondent claims that it was acting in the best interests of all parties concerned and that it made every effort to accommodate the complainant and his girlfriend on this particular occasion. I have noted that when the complainant was making the reservation to hire the car from the respondent that he was not requested, or indeed obliged, to disclose that he had a disability. Having regard to the evidence adduced, I am satisfied that the complainant fully satisfied and complied with the standard requirements that were imposed by the respondent in order to make a valid reservation, namely that he held a valid unendorsed full driving licence at the time of the incident and that he was between the age of 23 and 75 years.
5.2 The respondent submitted that if a person with a disability requested the hire of a specially modified or adapted car that it would be necessary in those circumstances to disclose this information to its insurance company. However, I am satisfied that in the present case, the complainant had made a valid reservation to hire a standard unmodified car from the respondent, and I consider that he was fully capable of driving such a vehicle. This conclusion is substantiated by the fact that the complainant held a valid full driving licence to drive the category of vehicle that he sought to hire from the respondent at the time of the incident. I note that there is a dispute between the parties regarding the complainant's contention that Mr. Daniels stated that he would not hire a car to a person with a disability and that it would be illegal to do so. Having carefully considered the evidence presented, I am satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that Mr. Daniels did not intentionally set out to discriminate against the complainant and that he believed he was acting in good faith on the date in question when he sought to address the concerns he held regarding complainant's insurability to drive the vehicle. However, I conclude that these concerns were totally ill-founded and misconceived, and were at variance with the standard requirements that the respondent imposed on a person in order to hire a car. In coming to this conclusion, I have noted that Mr. O'Malley, in his evidence, confirmed that a person with a disability was not required to comply with any additional requirements in order to hire a car from the respondent and also, that there weren't any additional insurance implications for the respondent when a vehicle was being hired by a person with a disability.
5.3 Having regard to the fact that the complainant fully satisfied all of the standard requirements that were imposed by the respondent in order to hire a car, I am of the view that the vehicle should have been made available to him on his arrival at Shannon Airport. It is clear that there was a hire car available at that particular time as it was subsequently made available to the complainant's girlfriend. In the circumstances, I find that the decision taken by Mr. Daniels, who was acting on behalf of the respondent, not to honour the complainant's reservation and provide him with the hire car that he had reserved was clearly based on the grounds of his disability. In the circumstances, I find that the respondent has failed to rebut the prima facie case of discrimination against the complainant on the disability ground.
6.1 On the basis of the foregoing, I find that the complainant was discriminated against by the respondent in terms of Section 3(1) and 3(2)(g) of the Equal Status Act, 2000 and contrary to Section 5(1) of that Act.
6.2 In accordance with section 27(1)(a) of the Act, I hereby order that the respondent pay the complainant the sum of €4,500 within 42 days of the date of this decision. I further order, in accordance with Section 27(1)(b) of the Act, that the respondent arrange for comprehensive training of all members of staff in the terms and application of the Equal Status Acts, 2000-2004, with such training to have commenced within three months from the date of this Decision.
20th December, 2007