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.
When it comes to customers with disabilities, "there isn't sufficient training in a lot of businesses," said Matthew Dietz, a Miami civil rights lawyer who represented Hurtado.
"Hopefully this is not only going to affect this dealership, but other dealerships and facilities," he said. Put bluntly, "you can't have a rule barring" people with disabilities and their service dogs from services.
The Americans with Disabilities Act says that a service dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for a specific person with a disability.
State and local governments, businesses and nonprofits that serve the general public must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities anyplace the public is allowed to go. There are a few exceptions, such as hospital operating rooms or burn units, where the animal's presence may compromise a sterile environment.
Fred Johnson, communication specialist at the Alliance of Disability Advocates and Center for Independent Living in Raleigh, N.C., said most employees probably are unaware of the law.
"The management may be, but whether or not they trickle that down to the floor of the business ... it's a hit or miss," he said, "Sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Marc Brandes, the Miami-area lawyer who represented the dealership that denied Hurtado a Mercedes loaner, said the dealership staff "didn't have the experience or knowledge of what a service dog was."
Brandes said the case resulted in a learning experience for the staff. Before Hurtado filed suit, the staff was unaware of the problem with giving Hurtado a different car.
"I think this was the first time for everybody at the dealership," he said.
The dealership's defense was that "a car is a car," Brandes said. He said he would have preferred to go to trial had it been financially feasible.
He questions whether the dealership violated the law because it didn't refuse a vehicle to Hurtado; it only limited the choices of vehicles he could use with Rex.
Tarra Robinson had an experience similar to Hurtado's. While shopping for a Honda Civic in January, she visited dealerships near her home in Austin, Texas. But the search proved stressful.
When Robinson, 36, requested a test drive at a suburban store, the dealership's staff told her that no dogs were allowed in the vehicle.