Rental company agrees to pay $15M to Ojai girls’ parents
By Misty Volaski
After more than five years of “delays and futile mediations,” experts and depositions, lawyers and paperwork, it’s finally over —- Cally and Chuck Houck have won retribution for the deaths of their two daughters, Nordhoff grads Jackie and Raechel Houck.
Last week, an Alameda County, Calif. jury awarded the Houcks $15 million for the wrongful and unreasonable deaths of their two girls, who died in a fiery head-on traffic collision with an 18-wheeler on the 101-north near King City on Oct. 7, 2004.
The defendant, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, claimed the deaths were a result of Raechel’s bad or negligent driving, but mom Cally knew her daughter better than that. “I knew in my heart, always, that Raechel was a very good driver,” Houck said. “Having lived in Europe for two years, she spent a lot of time driving the roads of rural Italy. She was very cautious and would never have taken any chances.”
Turns out, Cally’s gut feeling was spot-on. The Capitola, Calif. Enterprise branch which rented the girls a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser had been informed a month before that the vehicle had a safety recall, but did nothing about it. The repair that would have saved the lives of the Houck girls — the replacement of a power steering hose that could leak and ignite on the catalytic converter, causing a fire under the hood — was never made.
Houck lawyer Larry Grassini, of Grassini and Wrinkle law firm, said that the branch had actually rented that same vehicle out four times before they gave the keys to Raechel. According to a Grassini and Wrinkle press release, “Both of the managers-in-training who rented the PT Cruiser to the Houck sisters provided statements to the parents’ lawyers saying that Enterprise intentionally overbooked vehicles ‘to get customers in the front door’ and knowingly rented out vehicles in need of service and maintenance. The recalled PT Cruiser rented to Raechel Houck was the last car on the lot and was represented to her as a ‘free upgrade.’”
A few hours later, the girls were dead.
“Our experts and our attorneys,” Cally Houck said, “remained steadfast and showed the conclusive proof that the car’s defect — power steering fluid leaking onto the catalytic converter which caused an under-hood fire — started the fire, and impaired the steering, causing the car carrying my girls to crash head-on into an 18-wheeler and explode into a ball of flames.”
Enterprise fought the allegations for five and one-half years with several major law firms, only admitting liability May 25. They had previously offered a settlement of $3 million in exchange for the family keeping the matter confidential, but the family refused.
“This case should be about consequences,” said Cally. “When a billion dollar corporation puts profit before life, then engages in a war of attrition to wear the family down, hoping we die, or our attorneys run out of money, then those tactics become something that should be shown to the world. We allow corporations to take these risks, with little or no accountability. Why should they be able to make billions of dollars a year without taking steps to protect their customers from defective or dangerous cars?”
“The Houcks weren’t going to be muzzled,” said Grassini. “We felt we had put together a strong case. I’d hired a lot of experts to testify to the validity of our claims. Enterprise thought they could wear us down. We spent $800,000 in experts to get the proof. But just for tactical reasons, (Enterprise) decided it didn’t want the jury to hear all the facts” about the company’s corporate policy of renting recalled vehicles if they were requested by the customer or the only cars on the lot. So it admitted 100 percent liability for the Houck sisters’ deaths.
But even without that knowledge of Enterprise’s practices, the jury still awarded the Houcks $15 million.
“Under their standard system, after a recall, the car went out at least once before it was taken off the line,” said Grassini. Then, a little note would pop up on the computer screen, telling the branch that that vehicle had been recalled.”
This case, added Grassini, “shows just how effective that system was.”
What’s worse, Enterprise told the Houck lawyers in a deposition that they had no plans to change their policy. “This is something that has to be stopped,” said Grassini. “It’s a terrible practice, a prime example of corporate irresponsibility at the highest level.”
For the Houcks, their long fight may be over, but in some ways it will never end.
“I honestly don’t know what will be left after everyone is paid, but it doesn’t really matter because there can never be enough money to compensate us for the loss of our daughters,” Cally said. “What we want now is accountability and some assurance that this won’t continue to happen to innocent consumers. Then, Raechel and Jackie just become mere statistics, and I won’t allow that to happen.”
What’s left over will go toward the RageJax Foundation, which helps provide art and music lessons for disadvantaged children. “Raechel and Jackie live on through the educational opportunities we can provide all children, particularly those at risk or in displacement,” said Cally. “As Raechel said, ‘Tell me something is impossible, then look at the hope in my eyes.’ But, our fight for justice and accountability continues. Enterprise faced a jury in a court of law, now it’s time for it to face the court of public opinion. I will continue to advocate and campaign for corporate responsibility, calling attention to all business practices and policies that put the public at risk in the insatiable quest for profit. I didn’t lose my investment, my job, my car, or my pension. I lost my daughters.”