Judge Todd Markle. Georgia Court of Appeals (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Judge Todd Markle, Georgia Court of Appeals (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Georgia Court of Appeals has reversed a trial judge’s ruling holding U-Haul 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.

“After a thorough review of the record and the relevant statutory provisions, we conclude that the trial court erred in denying the U-Haul defendants’ motion to dismiss because the declaratory judgment action was improper. Accordingly, we reverse,” Judge Todd Markle wrote for a unanimous panel that included Presiding Judge Chris McFadden and Judge Brian Rickman. The decision was released Friday.

Markle replaced Judge Billy Ray, who heard the oral arguments on his last day at work there, having just been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as President Donald Trump’s appointee to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Oral arguments are live-streamed and archived on the court’s website.

The decision reverses Paulding County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lyles, who had denied U-Haul’s motion to dismiss the case and granted judgment on the pleadings for the other side. U-Haul’s appellate counsel, Laurie Webb Daniel of Holland & Knight, told the court during oral arguments last October that the trial court’s ruling would open the company to “unlimited” exposure. She repeated the word “unlimited” for effect. “It’s not sensible,” Daniel said. “It’s not fair.”

Arguing for the other side, John Salter of the Barnes Law Group in Marietta told the panel in October that 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.

The reversal denies compensation to the family of Charles Rutland, who died when a man driving a U-Haul truck while “allegedly high on meth” crossed the 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 lawsuit was filed by Rutland’s widow, Margaret Rutland.

“Here, Rutland sought a declaratory judgment that the U-Haul defendants would be liable for the full extent of any judgment received in the underlying wrongful death case.” Markle said. “Thus, our focus is on Rutland’s position and status with regard to the U-Haul defendants at the time the complaint was filed.”

Markle said that, to establish a sufficient legal interest, Rutland would have to show her rights are in direct jeopardy.

“It is well established that a plaintiff lacks standing to seek declaratory relief when he or she has only a generalized economic interest that is contingent upon future events because such interests are not legally protectable interests,” Markle said. He added that, as a general rule, a party has no standing to bring a direct action against a defendant’s insurance company “unless the plaintiff has obtained a judgment against the defendant that remains unsatisfied.”

Salter and Daniel were unavailable for immediate comment Monday.

Richardson said Rutland’s legal team will return to court to seek judgment against the driver of the truck and try again to hold U-Haul responsible.

“We’ll go in front of a jury and find out what people in Paulding think about drivers on meth going out killing people,” Richardson said. “U-haul thumbed their nose at Georgia’s insurance laws and got caught. We intend for U-Haul to pay for whatever judgment is rendered.”

The case is U-Haul v. Rutland, No. A18A2037.