$15M verdict in deadly 2004 crash

The Santa Cruz SentinelJune 21, 2010 

A jury has awarded $15 million to parents who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car after their daughters died in a fiery crash north of the San Luis Obispo-Monterey county line in 2004.

Their daughters, Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, 24 and 20, of Santa Cruz, died in a crash along Highway 101 in their rented Chrysler PT Cruiser — which was subject to a safety recall — near the Bradley rest stop. The sisters were returning from their mother’s home in Ventura when the PT Cruiser, headed north, crossed the grass median and hit a southbound big rig, bursting into flames.

Experts hired by the parents’ law firm concluded that Raechel Houck lost steering ability because of a power-steering fluid leak. Enterprise argued that the crash was caused by Houck’s driving.

But after the nation’s largest rental car company and its corporate parent fought the suit for five years, they admitted in May that they were negligent and “their negligence was the sole proximate cause of the fatal injuries,” according to a document signed by their attorneys.

The Alameda County Superior Court jury awarded damages June 9. The defendants have 30 days to appeal. Company attorneys at Yukevich Calfo & Cavanaugh in Los Angeles were not available 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.

The month before the accident, Daimler Chrysler sent out recall notices for 435,000 PT Cruisers from 2002 through 2005. The notice stated that 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; it had been rented four times since the recall, and the Houcks were the fourth, on Oct. 7, 2004.

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