Texas High Court Rules Contractor Not at Fault in Jail Death

July 3, 2008

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the descendents of a man who was found hanged with a telephone cord in a jail cell have no standing to recover damages from the contractor that supplied the telephone.

In JCW Electronics Inc. v. Pearl Iriz Garza and Belinda Leigh Camacho (NO. 05-1042), the Supreme Court found that “Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code apportions responsibility among those responsible for damages in ‘any cause of action based on tort,'” reversing the previous decision of a Texas court of appeals.

Justice David Medina in the Court’s written opinion explained: “On November 14, 1999, Rolando Domingo Montez was arrested for public intoxication and placed in the Port Isabel jail. The next day, Montez called his mother, Pearl Iriz Garza, to arrange his bail. Montez made the call from his jail cell on a phone provided by JCW Electronics, Inc. (“JCW”). JCW had installed these collect-only telephones for inmate use under a 1998 contract with the Port Isabel Police Department. Tragically, on the day he was to be released, Montez was found dead in his cell, hanging from the telephone cord.”

Garza sued the City of Port Isabel and subsequently JCW for her son’s death. A trial jury “generally found in Garza’s favor on claims of negligence, misrepresentation, and breach of implied warranty of fitness.” The jury apportioned the responsibility for Montez’s death, attributing 60 percent of the liability to Montez, 25 percent to the City of Port Isabel, and 15 percent to JCW.

JCW argued that the 60 percent finding of fault the jury attributed to Montez barred Garza’s recovery on all pleaded claims under Chapter 33, but the trial court found otherwise.

JCW appealed and the appeals court ultimately found Garza’s “contract claim had not been pled and her fraud claim was barred under Chapter 33.” However, the judgment was affirmed because the court of appeals agreed with “the jury’s finding of breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose because there was evidence that JCW had represented to the Port Isabel Chief of Police that the telephones would be safe for ‘unattended or unsupervised use by inmates.'”

Garza had argued that “the Legislature intended to exclude implied warranty claims from Chapter 33 when it replaced its comparative responsibility scheme, adopted in 1987, with proportionate responsibility in 1995,” according to the court document.

However, the 1995 version of the statute “deleted mention of specific theories of liability, providing instead that the chapter should apply ‘to any cause of action based on tort in which a defendant, settling person, or responsible third party is found responsible for a percentage of the harm for which relief is sought.'”

Thus, wrote Justice Medina, the appeals court erred when it “rejected JCW’s contention that Chapter 33 barred Garza’s implied warranty claim.”

The Supreme Court held instead “that a party who seeks damages for death or personal injury under a breach of implied warranty claim seeks damages in tort and is accordingly subject to Chapter 33.”

Refuting Garza’s argument, Medina wrote, “there is no indication that the Legislature intended to restrict the scope of Chapter 33 by explicitly removing implied warranties.” Instead, the Court concluded that “the 1995 amendments expanded the chapter’s scope.”

The Court found that the application of the proportionate responsibility scheme contained Chapter 33 to the jury’s verdict was correct in this case.

“Because the jury found the decedent, Montez, negligent and apportioned him sixty percent of the responsibility for his death, his contributory negligence bars recovery in this case,” Medina wrote.

Source: Supreme Court of Texas, www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us

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