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Hertz to pay $2.5 Million to Disabled Crash Victim

The Los Angeles Times
By Patricia Klein Lerner – Times Staff Writer

August 18, 1988

The Hertz Corp. has agreed to pay $2.5 million in an out-of-court settlement to a former Van Nuys resident left paralyzed from the neck down by a multi-vehicle pileup after one of the company’s rental cars stalled on the Ventura Freeway.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed in 1986 in Van Nuys Superior Court by Juan Ruiz Cruz, 42, alleging that Hertz negligently failed to perform proper maintenance on the rental car.

Attorneys for both sides agreed to the settlement Tuesday, the day before the case was scheduled to go to trial before Superior Court Judge Robert M. Letteau.

…[O]ne of Cruz’s two attorneys, on Wednesday, called the settlement the largest ever paid by a rental car company for a negligently maintained vehicle.

Hertz attorney Charles J. Bennett said the company settled the case before trial for fear a jury would give Cruz a much larger sum.

Cruz was a passenger in a pickup truck that was struck by two cars as their drivers sought to avoid a stalled Hertz rental car at about 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 13, 1985.

The rental car, driven by Rachell Abecassis of Ontario, Canada, suddenly lost power on the westbound Ventura Freeway near the Sepulveda Boulevard off-ramp in Van Nuys and was struck by another car

A third driver, seeking to avoid the accident, struck the pickup truck in which Cruz was riding, spinning it around and causing it to hit the center divider, where it was struck by a fourth car. Only Cruz was seriously injured.

California Highway Patrol investigators said the rented 1985 Nissan automobile apparently stalled because of faulty wiring in a cable linking the battery and the ignition.

[The attorney] said the car had stalled three times before the crash and Abecassis had unsuccessfully sought to have it repaired at two Hertz offices. Both times, she was assured the car was in working order, [the attorney] said.

Hertz records showed the car suffered front-end damage in an accident about two months before the crash and was not adequately repaired, he said

“To save a few bucks,” [the attorney] said. Hertz repairmen improvised wiring rather than use factory approved materials and installed a battery that was too small, wedging it in place with a piece of a hose.

Bennett acknowledged the stalling problem but said Abecassis never came to the company to request repairs or a new car. He said one Hertz mechanic told Abecassis over the telephone that the car was stalling because she wasn’t warming it up enough.

Hertz contended that the accident in which Cruz was injured was “a separate and subsequent collision” unrelated to the stall. The company said that the driver of the pickup truck could have braked and avoided Abecassis’ car had he not been drinking and that Cruz would not have been so severely injured had he been wearing a seat belt.

The suit sought unspecified damages for past and future medical expenses and earnings, and for pain and suffering for Cruz, a self-employed gardener. One other driver involved in the crash settled with Cruz out of court last year, paying $1 million.

Last week Bennett unsuccessfully sought a continuance until January 1989, arguing that widespread news coverage of other problems with Hertz’s repair system made a fair trial impossible.

The company pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. N.Y., on Aug. 4 to fraud charges for overbilling customers on repairs made to damaged rental cars. The company was fined $6.8 million and agreed to make restitution of $13.7 million to those it had overcharged.

Cruz, who now lives in Downey, could not be reached for comment.

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