A Harris County, Texas jury awarded $24.7 million to the family of a woman who died in a crash with a drunken driver four years ago, the Associated Press reported.
The civil jury found Jeffrey Lamont Tate responsible for $14.82 million and his insurance company and a rental car agency responsible for $4.94 million each.
The award is subject to the approval of state District Judge Randy Wilson, who heard the weeklong trial.
Richard Mithoff, who represented 56-year-old victim Helen Nettles’ family, said Progressive County Mutual Insurance Co. arranged for Tate to get a rental vehicle from Enterprise Leasing Co. in November 2000 even though a month earlier Tate had been cited for driving while intoxicated and his license had been suspended.
A day after renting the car, Mithoff said Tate “was intoxicated and in a high-speed crash struck” Nettles’ pickup truck, causing it to slam into a light pole and burst into flames. Nettles died in the fire, he said.
“The jury found the insurance company was accountable for its own negligence in arranging for a rental when it knew its policyholder could not legally drive because of a suspended license,” Mithoff said. “Even though they knew Tate had a prior DWI and suspended license, they made arrangements for a rental car with their in-house agency, Enterprise.”
Enterprise Rent-A-Car spokeswoman Christy Conrad said Tate presented the rental company with a valid driver’s license. She said the company previously settled with the Nettles family and that confidential settlement would stand despite the jury’s recommendation.
“This is a terrible tragedy and we are very sorry it happened,” Conrad said. “Our hearts go out to the Nettles family.”
Tate’s attorney, John Causey, said his client is happy to get the case behind him. Tate is serving a 13-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter.
“He is relieved that the Nettles can get on, hopefully as well as possible, with their life,” Causey said. “He was seriously concerned about the Nettles family.”
Causey said the proceeds of a $20,000 insurance policy Tate had were turned over to the Nettleses shortly after the crash.
“Of course he has no assets at all,” Causey said. “The only thing he had was the insurance policy.”
Causey said Tate’s car had been damaged in the one-car accident that led to his October arrest and he needed a car to get to work. Causey said his insurance policy provided for a rental car and he contacted Progressive, who forwarded his call to Enterprise.
“Basically they transferred a phone call and that was the extent of their involvement,” Causey said of Progressive.
He said Tate didn’t realize his license had been suspended because the notice was sent to an old address and authorities returned the license to him following his initial arrest.
Progressive attorney Kevin Hood declined to comment on the jury’s verdict.
Mithoff said Nettles’ family also settled with Toyota, which manufactured the pickup truck, prior to the trial.
The family hopes the verdict will “serve notice to insurance companies and rental car companies not to arrange for leasing of vehicles to policyholders with known DWI convictions or a suspended license,” Mithoff said.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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