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A jury has awarded $15 million to the parents who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco after their daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck of Santa Cruz, died in a fiery crash in 2004.
Enterprise, the nation's largest rental car company, and its corporate parent contested the lawsuit for five years, then admitted in May they were negligent and that "their negligence was the sole proximate cause of the fatal injuries," according to a document signed by their attorneys.
The jury awarded damages June 9; the defendants have 30 days to decide whether to appeal.
Company attorneys at Yukevich Calfo and Cavanaugh in Los Angeles were unavailable to comment. Enterprise spokeswoman Laura Bryant, in St. Louis, said the company would have a statement today.
"This is a consumer issue of vital importance," said Carol "Cally" Houck, mother of the two young women, citing a deposition from a company official indicating Enterprise had no plans to change policies regarding recalled cars in their fleets.
Raechel Houck, 24, who worked at The Catalyst, had rented a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser on Oct. 7, 2004, at Enterprise's Capitola location for herself and her sister, 20, who worked at Little Tampico in Soquel.
The previous month, Daimler Chrysler sent out safety recall notices for 435,000 PT Cruisers from 2002 through 2005. The notice said the power steering hose could leak, resulting in a fire.
Enterprise records showed the PT Cruiser in which the Houck sisters died had not been repaired, that it had been rented four times since the recall, and that the Houcks were the fourth.
In a sworn declaration, Mark Matias, manager of Enterprise's Northern California area including Capitola from 1994 to 2004, said that before the accident, he was unaware the PT Cruiser was a recalled vehicle.
Furthermore, he said the Enterprise corporate philosophy was "you've got to keep booking, because you
don't know when you are going to get a car back. But then of course, you run short on vehicles, and if all you have are recalled vehicles on the lot, you rent them out. It was a given. The whole company did it."
His statement explained his understanding of the policy: If a priority recall appears on the computer screen in the rental office, the employee is required to write the word "recall" on a Post-it note and place it on the key in an area designated for non-rentals, but nothing prevents an employee from renting that vehicle.
The Houck sisters were on Highway 101 near Bradley, returning from their mother's home in Ventura, when the PT Cruiser, headed northbound, crossed the grass median and hit a southbound big rig, bursting into flames.
"Within a month following the crash, we learned that the vehicle rented to my daughters from Capitola Enterprise was recalled," their mother said. "After digging further, their dad Chuck discovered that the recall had not been resolved and the repairs were never made."
They filed the case in Alameda County because Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco has its corporate headquarters there.
Experts hired by the parents' law firm concluded Raechel Houck lost steering ability because of a power-steering fluid leak.
Enterprise argued the crash was due to Raechel's driving.
The parents' attorney, Lawrence Grassini of Grassini and Wrinkle in Woodland Hills, said Enterprise offered the parents $3 million if they would keep the matter confidential.
"We didn't want Enterprise to silence us," Cally Houck said. "When you cause harm, you have to suffer the consequences of your actions."
She noted a 2009 Kansas City Star investigation found Enterprise arranged with General Motors to exclude air bags from thousands of Chevrolet Impalas purchased for its fleet, then sold hundreds of them while advertising the cars online as having side air bags when they did not.
She also cited a lawsuit filed in Tulare County by Teng Chu, 16, left paralyzed after a Ford Expedition rented at Enterprise crashed, killing three passengers. The lawsuit, which alleged the vehicle lacked Ford's factory-installed anti-rollover system, concluded in a confidential settlement, according to a court staffer.
Although the Houck jury did not hear testimony about the company's policies on renting recalled vehicles, "all that material is part of the public record," Grassini said.
When any funds are divided up, Houck said the RageJax Foundation, which she started to further her daughters' dreams of helping others, would receive a part of the proceeds.
"Any recall is a safety-related recall," said Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., which examines vehicle safety issues. "It needs to be handled before the customer gets a car. It shouldn't be the consumer's responsibility. It should be the company's responsibility. That’s what’s missing in this equation."
Article by the Santa Cruz Sentinel
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