Not many parents would be brave enough to prosecute their own child for stealing their car.
But anyone taking such a tough stance would not expect to be penalised by their insurer — particularly when most firms would be sympathetic.
Yet this is what has happened to Susan and James Schnadhorst, from Northwood, Hertfordshire.
They now face a £10,000 bill after their 18-year-old son Aiden took their car without permission and then crashed it.
He was sentenced by magistrates for this crime, but the Schnadhorsts’ insurer Sheilas’ Wheels has refused to pay up because of small-print inserted into their policy when they renewed it just three months earlier.
‘We have paid a lot of money in premiums to ensure our car was fully covered. It is totally unfair to lose out after the car was stolen and damaged,’ says Mrs Schnadhorst.
The Schnadhorsts’ situation appears to be yet another example of innocent people left thousands of pounds out of pocket by insurers who rely on sneaky small-print to refuse a claim.
Susan’s sons Aiden and Alexander, 21, had been left at home one Monday evening in August.
Their mother was visiting family in America and their stepdad James, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, was working a night shift.
Aiden is described as a studious young man who had recently received his A-level results and was working at a local golf course to earn extra money before he went to university.
On this night, the brothers drank some beers and — in a moment of madness — decided it would be fun to take Susan’s Mercedes sports coupe for a drive.
Neither of them has ever had a driving lesson.
Aiden, who is now studying politics at Oxford Brookes University, took the wheel — but he smashed the automatic car into a lamp-post just hundreds of yards from the family house’s front door.
Amazingly, no one was hurt — but the £10,000 car was a write-off.
Police breathalysed Aiden and charged him with drink-driving, driving without insurance and a licence and taking a vehicle without consent. He pleaded guilty at St Albans Magistrates Court and was fined £500 and banned from driving for 20 months.
However, this was not enough to convince Sheilas’ Wheels — which prides itself on being women-friendly — that his parents were not at fault.
They quoted small-print in the insurance documents which stated they would refuse to pay out for damage done ‘by someone in the family or living with you’.
This affects some 1.5 million customers with Sheilas’ Wheels and its parent company, esure.
Mrs Schnadhorst, 46, an environmental adviser, paid £53 a month for her insurance and believed she was fully covered.
‘Not only does my son now have a criminal record, but we have no car and can’t afford to buy a new one,’ says Susan. ‘Shelias’ Wheels markets itself as a women-friendly brand, but this penalises mums with teenage children.
‘All teenagers can be a liability and suddenly decide to do something stupid.’
Yet had the Schnadhorsts been with a different insurer, Money Mail can reveal they would have been covered.
This includes RBS — which owns Direct Line, Churchill, Privilege and NatWest policies — LV=, Aviva, and RSA, which owns More Than.
They will pay out if a person who lives with you takes your car without permission provided that person has been reported to the police.
Had Aiden committed his crime three months earlier, his parents would have been covered.
This is because Susan’s insurance with Sheilas’ Wheels came up for renewal in June. She accepted the quote sent to her — but did not spot on page nine of the 16-page document that the insurer had changed terms relating to family members.
Mike Powell of Defaqto, the financial analyst, warns that insurers frequently change the wording of policies when they come up for renewal.
‘The devil is in the detail and consumers must make sure they are aware of any policy changes before they renew their policy,’ he says. ‘If they are unsure of what has Sheilas’ Wheels changed, they should speak to their provider to get clarification.’
A spokesman for Esure, which owns Sheilas’ Wheels, says: ‘We have to stand by our policy wording and it is clear, in this instance, the claim is not covered.
‘We see those living at the policyholder’s home as effectively an extension of the policy-holder. We do not see a difference between the car being stolen by a family member and the car being borrowed with permission to visit the shops, for example.’
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