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Death leads to lawsuit against U-Haul

A Bay Area customer died when he attempted to help after a truck he'd rented started rolling as a worker inside it tried to fix the parking brake.

September 16, 2007|Myron Levin and Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writers

When the parking brake malfunctioned repeatedly, Demetrio T. Nagtalon drove the truck back to the U-Haul rental center in San Francisco to exchange it for another.

After pulling into the check-in area, Nagtalon watched as a U-Haul employee slid under the dashboard with a pliers to tug on the brake cable. The worker left the engine running and the truck on an incline, neglecting to block the wheels.

Suddenly, the truck began rolling downhill. Nagtalon rushed toward it, trying to help. He became pinned between the 4-ton truck and a steel pillar and suffered a crushed pelvis and massive internal bleeding.

Nagtalon, 63, of Daly City, Calif., died at a hospital two hours later.

Bobby M. Johnson, the U-Haul worker, who escaped injury, said Nagtalon was a hero, according to a police report on the Dec. 8 incident. "He got hurt trying to save me," Johnson told police.

A wrongful-death suit filed by Nagtalon's widow and children accuses Phoenix-based U-Haul International Inc. and Johnson of negligence for failing to turn off the motor, put the truck in park and make repairs in a safe location.

In response, U-Haul, the nation's largest supplier of rental trucks and trailers, said Nagtalon was to blame.

"The cause of this accident was Mr. Nagtalon's actions which placed his safety at risk in a situation where his assistance was not required," lawyers for U-Haul and Johnson said in court documents. U-Haul asserted that Nagtalon was told to stand clear and that had he "remained a safe distance from the truck, this tragic accident would not have occurred."

No trial date has been set. U-Haul called Nagtalon's death "a terrible tragedy" but declined further comment. Johnson could not be reached.

A Times series published in June documented persistent safety problems with U-Haul trucks and trailers. The company's fleet of 100,000 trucks includes many aging, high-mileage vehicles, and U-Haul often fails to meet its own standards for inspecting and maintaining them, The Times reported.

Former employees said it's not unusual for untrained or inexperienced U-Haul workers to attempt on-the-fly repairs to keep equipment on the road.

The truck Nagtalon rented to move equipment from a video store he operated was 13 years old and had logged 180,000 miles. A week earlier, it had been in the shop because the parking brake would not disengage, according to U-Haul repair records provided to Matthew Kumin, the Nagtalon family's attorney. That was the same problem Nagtalon encountered.

The fatal accident occurred at U-Haul's Bayshore Boulevard center, one of the company's biggest revenue producers.

Johnson, 46, a customer service representative, was not a trained mechanic. Nevertheless, he sought to fix the problem rather than give Nagtalon another truck.

"I was under the dash working on the emergency brake with a pair of pliers," Johnson said, according to the police report. "I released the cable and the truck started to roll. The guy jumped in to stop it."

When asked why the truck rolled, Johnson replied: "I think it was in gear," according to the report.

Another U-Haul worker, Erick Humberto Morales, told police: "The old man was running, trying to catch the cab. The door was open and he ran to the truck. It was still moving with the engine running. I saw him climb on the truck. He hit like a sandwich."

Nagtalon's case bears some similarity to an accident described in the Times series. In that incident, Talmadge Waldrip, 74, of Forney, Texas, stepped out of a rented U-Haul truck, only to have it roll over him on Sept. 20, 2006. He suffered a crushed pelvis and other injuries.

Waldrip told family members that he had set the truck's parking brake before getting out.

Records show that the truck, which was 19 years old and had been driven nearly 234,000 miles, had a history of parking-brake problems.

Waldrip, who has sued U-Haul, endured more than a dozen surgeries and nine months in the hospital and has run up more than $1.6 million in medical bills, his lawyer said.

U-Haul has denied responsibility for that incident, stating in court papers that there was no evidence it had been "aware or should have been aware" of any problems with the brake.

Nagtalon, a Filipino immigrant, had four children and 13 grandchildren. They will remember him as a hero who died trying to save another man's life, said Aveline Nagtalon, his wife of 38 years.

Aveline Nagtalon, 62, a hospital technician, wept inconsolably as she recalled Nagtalon's cheerful nature and love of dancing. The grandchildren called him "Papa Choco," she said, because he loved chocolate and always carried extra for them.

Adele Mark, one of Nagtalon's daughters, said his death "could have been prevented on so many levels. They could have given him a new truck and sent him on his way. They could have turned off the engine, taken the keys out and put it in park."

"I just want them to change the way they practice business," she said, and "be a little more professional in how they treat their customers."

--

myron.levin@latimes.com

alan.miller@latimes.com

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