On August 31, 2012, the Supreme Court once again overturned the decision a jury reached in a case after the jurors heard and evaluated all of the evidence at trial. The decision occurred in U-Haul International, Inc., et al. v. Waldrip, et al., ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2012)(8/31/12).
The father of a woman who rented a U-Haul truck was severely injured when the truck rolled back upon him as he exited it. It then dragged him 60 feet. The evidence showed that the unit had problems with its parking brake and transmission. In fact, a problem with this unit had been reported a year earlier. In addition, the rental personnel did not know how to properly check the relevant fluid levels. Not only that, but the evidence revealed a systematic failure of U-Haul to provide a proper maintenance and safety program. In particular, the testimony revealed that widespread maintenance problems with safety issues were discovered in U-Haul’s Canadian operations, including brake problems with about 50% of the units investigated by the government of British Columbia.
The Supreme Court ruled that the jury should not have been allowed to hear about the problems with U-Haul’s fleet uncovered by the Canadian government. It was offered to show an overall pattern of indifference to safety issues. But the Supreme Court ruled that the varied safety issues discovered in Canada were not sufficiently “similar” to the unit in question, because the trucks involved differed in size and model.
The Supreme Court further ruled that an entry in the company’s database about a problem with this particular vehicle was not “actually known” to U-Haul’s personnel who leased the truck, so punitive damages could not be assessed against U-Haul for that. Nor could they be assessed against U-Haul for hiring an untrained worker, since the hiring executive purportedly did not have knowledge of the risk imposed by hiring incompetent personnel to inspect trucks.
The result was that the Supreme Court reversed the jury’s punitive damages verdict, and sent the case back to the trial court for the cost and expense of another trial, six years after the incident in question.