Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mercedes Benz Dealership Gets Schooled on Service Dogs

Dealerships grapple with regulations allowing service dogs
Florida store pays up after denying a Mercedes loaner
Automotive News
Hannah Lutz
December 7, 2014
Diego Hurtado, left, a retired Army paratrooper, uses a service dog, Rex. Dealership staffers refused to let him take a Mercedes loaner when he brought his car in for service, citing customers' allergies. The store agreed to pay Hurtado $5,000 to settle a lawsuit. The dealership also will train employees on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When Diego Hurtado took his 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300w in for service in May, an available Mercedes loaner was prepared for him. Then the staff noticed Rex, his dog.

Staffers at Mercedes-Benz of Cutler Bay in Cutler Bay, Fla., refused to let Hurtado take the Mercedes loaner, saying they could only lend him a car through an on-site Hertz car rental center, which gave him a Chrysler 200. The dealership had a rule against animals in the Mercedes cars because of some customers' allergies.

But Rex, a golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix, isn't just a pet. Rex is a service dog that assists Hurtado, 53, a retired Army paratrooper, with orthopedic and balance problems and aids his post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When my service dog gets questioned," Hurtado said, "it pushes me into anxiety."

Consumers with disabilities often face questions about their service dogs from businesses, including car dealerships. Some say it happens to them daily. By law, service dogs are allowed anywhere the public can go, but many employees don't know the rules about service animals.

The issue is complicated by people who claim, incorrectly, that their pets are service dogs. But that doesn't get businesses off the hook. Denying equal treatment to a person with a service dog is illegal -- and potentially costly.

Hurtado filed a lawsuit in June. In September, he reached a settlement with Mercedes-Benz of Cutler Bay, part of the Bill Ussery Motors Group, under which the dealership agreed to pay Hurtado $5,000 in damages, pay his attorney fees and instruct its staff in the pertinent law.

The dealership will hold training sessions to teach its employees about the Americans with Disabilities Act and how to treat customers with disabilities. The dealership also will display signs to welcome people with disabilities and their service dogs.
Fake service dogs

But some confrontation may be legitimate. People often take their pet dogs into businesses and try to pass them off as service animals.

These people pose a problem for both businesses and customers with disabilities who have service dogs.

Hurtado estimated that about half of the "service dogs" he sees are not trained service animals. He said he can tell by their behavior, cleanliness and response to their owners and other dogs.

"People that do know the law are too afraid to challenge them," Hurtado said.

Bernson said that anyone can buy a service dog vest and fraudulent identification card online.

"Businesses are [stopping dogs] less and less" because they fear a lawsuit, she said.

People who try to pass off pets as service dogs, Hurtado said, are "really dirtying the water for us."
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