Texas SC: State law trumps commercial code in wrongful death case

Steve Korris Jul. 9, 2008, 7:32am

AUSTIN – The Texas Supreme Court wiped out a Cameron County jury verdict that skirted a state law prohibiting recovery for personal injury when most of the blame lies with the victim.

The justices held June 27 that when jurors assigned Rolando Montez 60 percent of the blame for his own death, they automatically let defendants off the hook.

District Judge Benjamin Euresti had ruled that state law for apportionment of liability, in Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, did not apply because Montez's mother, Pearl Garza, sued under the Texas Uniform Commercial Code.

The 13th District appeals court in Corpus Christi affirmed Euresti, but all nine Supreme Court justices agreed that the commercial code didn't override personal injury law.

Montez hanged himself with a telephone cord in the Port Isabel jail in 1999.

Garza sued the city and phone provider JCW Electronics, alleging negligence, misrepresentation and breach of implied warranty of fitness.

Jurors attributed 60 percent of liability to Montez, 25 percent to Port Isabel and 15 percent to JCW Electronics.

JCW Electronics moved for judgment, arguing that Chapter 33 barred recovery.

Garza moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for breach of contract and fraud.

Euresti denied JCW's motion and granted Garza's motion.

The 13th District didn't affirm the verdict on breach of contract and fraud, but justices there agreed they could affirm it on breach of implied warranty of fitness.

JCW Electronics appealed again, and the Supreme Court cleared the company.

Justice David Medina wrote, "Garza's argument rests on the dubious proposition that breach of implied warranty is not, or can never be, 'a cause of action based on tort.' This, of course, is contrary to Texas law."

Examination of Chapter 33 confirms that legislators did not intend to exclude breach of implied warranty claims from its apportionment scheme, he wrote.

Thomas Nye represented JCW Electronics. Tony Martinez, Jane Webre and Benigno Martinez III represented Garza.

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