Orange County Register – Rental Firm Found Liable in Death

COURTS: Dollar Rent-A-Car owes $4 million after jury says it knew worker who caused wreck used drugs.

Dollar Rent-A-Car was hit with a $4 million verdict Friday by a jury that found it knowingly allowed an employee with a drug habit to drive home from work while impaired. The worker slammed into another car at John Wayne Airport‚ killing a mother of nine. Dollar denied any wrongdoing‚ and its lawyer said it will appeal. A workplace expert who testified said the verdict sends a strong message to companies about the behavior of employees.

Dollar Rent-A-Car must pay $4 million for allowing an employee with a known drug habit to drive home from work while impaired‚ an Orange County jury decided Friday in a wrongful-death trial. Workplace experts said the verdict sends a strong message to companies‚ which generally are not held liable for what a worker does on the job unless the company knew—or should have known—about illegal behavior.

"It appears that there were some dumb people here who did some dumb things‚" said Richard Danehy‚ a human-resources consultant in San Diego who testified at the civil trial in Santa Ana.

Dollar‚ which denied any wrongdoing‚ plans to appeal.

On Oct. 30‚ 1998‚ company employee Rene Urena‚ 29‚ of Huntington Beach slammed into another car within two es of Dollar’s office at John Wayne Airport‚ killing a mother of nine.

After two months of testimony‚ the jury Thursday found Dollar liable for the death of Shui Mei Chang‚ 71.

"The facts of this case were clear‚" said Jeoffrey Robinson‚ representing Chang’s survivors.

"Dollar knowingly let an impaired employee get behind the wheel of a car‚ and the result was tragic."

Marijuana‚ Valium‚ barbiturates‚ a muscle relaxant and traces of cocaine were found in Urena’s system after the crash‚ according to court testimony. She suffered minor injuries.

Urena did not have‚ a driver’s license at the time despite shuttling rental vehicles as part of her job at Dollar.

She had been convicted twice of driving under the influence in the eight months before the crash on a Corona del Mar (73) Freeway on-ramp‚ documents state.

Urena pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and is serving 10 years in state prison.

She worked at Dollar offices at Los Angeles International Airport and John Wayne Airport for about 1 ¹⁄² years.

According to Robinson and testimony presented at the trial‚ Dollar supervisors ignored Urena’s drug use because she was a skilled rental agent who willingly performed undesirable tasks.

Scott O’Neill‚ attorney for Dollar declined to comment after Friday’s verdict.

During testimony before Judge Michael Brenner‚ Dollar officials said Urena. told them she was on medication for nasal and stomach problems.

But jurors—by a 9-3 majority—concluded that Dollar officials knew Urena had a drug problem and didn’t do anything about it.

"They never disciplined her‚" juror Virginia Finley said. "What we felt was the company did nothing to punish or deter her in her addiction."

"We felt her superiors knew she had a problem… but almost no one came and said‚ "You can’t do this!"

Some pages from Urena’s employee files that addressed her drug problem were missing after police investigated her after the crash according to testimony.

Larry Bales‚ one of the three dissenting jurors—civil cases do not require unanimous verdicts—said Dollar tried to help Urena when she was working at LAX

"That (testimony) was completely ignored (by fellow jurors)‚" Bales said.

He labeled as "outrageous" the $2 million in punitive damages awarded to the Changs‚ saying the initial $2 million awarded Thursday was enough.

Shui Mei Chang enjoyed gardening and was taking care of her stroke-disabled husband when she was killed while on her way to the home of one of her six daughters.

"It’s devastating‚" said Chang’s daughter‚ Lauren Marshall‚ 39‚ of Irvine. "I still cry in the shower. I saw my mom nearly every day."

Danehy‚ the human-resources expert‚ said employers can take precautions to reduce the risk of liability for drug-abusing workers.

"If a company has policies and procedures‚ they should be followed‚" he said. "Do things in a prudent way."

"And if you notice some aberrant behavior going on—if you see a worker who appears intoxicated—you certainly shouldn’t let that person get behind the wheel of a car‚" he said. "Get someone to drive him or her home."