A California jury has awarded $15 million to the family of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, who died after Enterprise Rent-A-Car knowingly rented them a car that had been recalled due to safety concerns. Enterprise, the nation’s largest rental car company, had contested the wrongful death lawsuit for five years but admitted full responsibility in May.
In October of 2004, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, who were 24 and 20 at the time, rented a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser from an Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Capitola, California. Daimler Chrysler had recalled the model a month before because a steering hose could leak and result in a fire.
The sisters were traveling home from their mother’s house in Southern California when the car crossed the grass median, hit a semi-truck in the southbound lane and burst into flames. Experts hired by the Houck family’s attorneys determined that the accident was caused by the steering hose leak, which caused Raechel Houck to lose the ability to steer.
“Within a month following the crash, we learned that the vehicle rented to my daughters from Capitola Enterprise was recalled,” said Cally Houck, the women’s mother, in a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News.
Enterprise records showed that the car rented to the Houck sisters had not been returned to Daimler Chrysler or repaired, and it had been rented four times after the date of the recall.
Enterprise’s Policy Allowed Them to Rent Cars Subject to Safety Recalls
Mark Matias, manager of Enterprise’s Northern California area at the time of the accident, gave a sworn statement that Enterprise’s policy was to rent recalled cars, if necessary.
Matias stated his understanding of the policy was that employees were to write the word “recall” on a Post-It note, place it on the car keys, and put those keys in an area designated for non-rentals. However, no rule prevented an employee from renting those vehicles.
He summed up Enterprise’s corporate philosophy this way: “[Y]ou’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.”
A deposition of an Enterprise official indicated that Enterprise has no plans to change its policy regarding renting recalled cars.
The Houcks turned down a $3 million offer from Enterprise to settle the wrongful death claim confidentially.
“We didn’t want Enterprise to silence us,” Cally Houck explained, pointing out that Enterprise has been investigated at least twice for renting or selling unsafe or unsuitable vehicles. “This is a consumer issue of vital importance.”
The jury award was entered on June 9, and Enterprise and its parents company have 30 days from that date to file an appeal.
“Jury awards $15 million in Santa Cruz wrongful death case against Enterprise car rental” (San Jose Mercury News, June 22, 2010)