**June 22, 2010 – By Jondi Gumz – MercuryNews.com
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, died in a fiery motor vehicle crash in 2004. Enterprise, the nation’s largest rental car company, and its corporate parent, fought the lawsuit for five long years, playing hardball. Finally, just before trial of the case was to start, the Enterprise defendants admitted fault and said “their negligence was the sole proximate cause of the fatal injuries.” Up to that point, the defendants had been blaming Rachael Houck, the driver of the rented vehicle.
An Enterprise company official said in a deposition that the company had no plans to change policies regarding recalled cars in its fleets. Raechel Houck, 24, rented a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser at an Enterprise location for herself and Jacqueline, her 20 year old sister. Daimler Chrysler sent out safety recall notices for 435,000 PT Cruisers from 2002 through 2005 one month before this rental occurred. The notice said the power steering hose on the recalled vehicles could leak, resulting in a fire.
Enterprise records showed the PT Cruiser the Houck sisters rented had not been repaired. Neither was it grounded. In fact, the vehicle had been rented four times since the recall. The manager of Enterprise’s Northern California area, which included the location where this rental took place, claimed that before the accident, he was not aware the PT Cruiser was a recalled vehicle. But, he did admit that Enterprise rented recalled vehicle on a nationwide basis.
The Houck sisters were on a state highway and were returning from their mother’s home in Ventura when the PT Cruiser was involved in a collision with a tractor-trailer unit. The rented vehicle burst into flames and the two sisters lost their life. It was learned that Raechel Houck lost steering ability because of a power-steering fluid leak. Even though Enterprise blamed the crash on Raechel’s driving, their lawyers offered the parents $3 million to settle their case if they would keep the matter confidential. The parents refused, saying they “didn’t want Enterprise to silence” them. Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, a company that examines vehicle safety issues, had this to say about recalls and Enterprise’s duty:
Any recall is a safety-related recall. 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 missing in this equation.
This case revealed some very bad conduct. Renting recalled vehicles to folks and letting them run the risk of being badly injured or killed is intolerable. Hopefully, this company has learned a lesson and will change its policy. Larry Grassini of the Woodland, California firm of Grassini and Wrinkle, represented the parents and they did a very good job. These lawyers are to be commended. They stayed the course and didn’t allow Enterprise to wear them and their clients down over the 5 year long legal battle. It’s a shame that Enterprise put this family though such an ordeal when it knew all along they were at fault and caused two young women to be tragically killed.