On November 14, 1999, high-school dropout Rolando Domingo Montez, celebrating his 19th birthday, was arrested for public intoxication and trespass after the owner of the boat on which he and his friends were sitting complained. Police placed him in Cell No. 1 of the Port Isabel City Jail. The next morning, Montez was permitted to make some collect calls from his jail cell to seek bail money from his mother, Pearl Iris Garza. Mom, complaining that Montez was in jail again, refused. But she generously came to pick up Montez on the 16th when he was released on his own recognizance. Unfortunately, while Garza was waiting in the lobby, and while police were responding to a call for assistance regarding a suspicious vehicle, Montez hung himself with the 19-inch phone cord from the phone he had used to make the calls.
This was, said the lawsuit of Pearl Iris Garza, Montez’s mother, the fault of Port Isabel taxpayers. (Montez’s estranged girlfriend, Belinda Leigh Camacho, the unwed mother of his child, also sued.) An Overlawyered reader can expect that. What surprised even me was that the plaintiffs also sued the manufacturer of the phone. (Isn’t it nice that through five years of blogging on the subject, the plaintiffs’ bar still has the capacity to cause outrage? Or maybe I’d be a happier person if I were more cynical.)
Port Isabel is in the south part of South Texas, so you won’t be terribly surprised that a jury found that Montez was only 60% responsible for his death, with the city 25% responsible and JCW Electronics 15% responsible. (Or maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the jury ascribed that much responsibility to Montez.)
Fortunately for Port Isabel taxpayers, the Texas legislature modified its joint and several liability and comparative fault rules to bar any recovery to plaintiffs who are more than 50% responsible for their mishap. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.002(a)(1). Nevertheless, lower courts (including the notorious Corpus Christi appellate court, see 176 S.W.3d 618) bought Montez’s trial lawyers’ argument that JCW was still on the hook because Chapter 33 only applied to torts, and they were ostensibly suing under “implied warranty.” Final judgment was issued against JCW of $140,000 to Garza and $376,200 to Montez’s son. (Camacho got nothing.)
But the Texas Supreme Court sensibly noted (citing decades of precedent) that such lawsuit allegations sound in tort, correctly applied the law, and threw out the case. (JCW Electronics, Inc. v. Garza, No. 05-1042 (Tex. Jun. 27, 2008) (via Steenson); Jail Suicide/Mental Health Update, Winter 2003 (pdf)).
Note cases like this when you see leftist Texas groups count up “business victories” in the Texas Supreme Court and falsely argue that the Court is in the pockets of business interests when the real problem is lower courts making bogus rulings to favor the trial lawyers. And note that had the jury found Montez 49% responsible instead of 60% responsible, JCW and taxpayers would still be on the hook.