U-Haul is asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to reverse a trial judge’s ruling holding the company liable for the full extent of the damages in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man who was hit by a rented truck.
That judge’s ruling is “unprecedented,” U-Haul’s appellate counsel, Laurie Webb Daniel of Holland & Knight, told the court Wednesday. If it stands, the ruling would open the company to “unlimited” exposure, she said, repeating the word “unlimited” for effect. “It’s not sensible,” Daniel said. “It’s not fair.”
U-Haul of Arizona owns the truck and has a self-insurance plan for its entire fleet registered there. U-Haul of Georgia rented the truck. The company argues that because it is self-insured, it should be able to limit its liability to the statutory minimum insurance levels required by Georgia law. Paulding County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lyles disagreed, denied U-Haul’s motion to dismiss and granted judgment on the pleadings for the other side.
Arguing for the other side, John Salter of the Barnes Law Group in Marietta told the court it would not be fair to overturn the ruling. Salter also argued that the court has plenty of precedent to uphold the ruling and cited many cases, although he and Daniel disagreed on what those cases mean.
If the court reverses as U-Haul requests, it will deny compensation to the family of Charles Rutland, who died when a man driving a U-Haul truck while “allegedly high on meth” crossed a center line and caused a crash, Salter said. The driver had no insurance. His girlfriend had rented the truck and was offered no insurance at the time, according to the Barnes brief.
Salter was accompanied by his partner, former Gov. Roy Barnes, and their co-counsel, former Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson, now a partner with Talley, Richardson & Cable in Dallas.
Salter argued that U-Haul’s self insurance amounts to no insurance. He said a company cannot enjoy the benefit of minimizing liability as a self-insurer without first qualifying a self insurance plan with the Georgia Department of Insurance, which U-Haul had not done prior to the wreck.
“What they are saying is, ‘We’re going to stick you with the statutory minimums, and we’re going to walk away.’ They’re the Gingerbread Man, and they can’t be touched,” Salter said. “Our clients have had someone taken away from them, and there is no other coverage available.”
The arguments were heard by Presiding Judge Christopher McFadden, Judge Brian Rickman and Judge Billy Ray.
However, Ray will not be part of the decision, having recently been confirmed to an appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. At the start of a full calendar of oral arguments Wednesday morning, Ray told the attorneys not to worry if he didn’t seem to agree with them. “This is probably my last day, and I won’t be voting.”
The case is U-Haul v. Rutland, No. A18A2037.