Comparative Fault in Jail Cell Phone Self-strangulation Death

Jefferson's Separate Opinion in JCW Electronics, Inc. vs. Garza (Tex.

The Chief Justice agrees with the majority that Garza’s implied warranty claim
qualifies as a cause of action sounding in tort and is therefore subject to the  
proportionate responsibility scheme found in Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil
Practice and Remedies Code. 60% contributory negligence on the part of dead
inmate precludes recovery of damages.

JCW Electronics, Inc. v. Garza, No. 05-1042 (Tex. 2008) (Majority Opinion by Justice David Medina)  
(contributory negligence precludes recovery of damages in prison inmate's death by strangulation with cord of
prison cell phone represented by seller as safe for unsupervised use by prisoners)


Jefferson's Concurrence in JCW v. Garza (Tex. 2008) (7-page opinion in pdf)


Argued October 18, 2007

Chief Justice Jefferson, joined by Justice O’Neill, concurring.

I agree that chapter 33's proportionate responsibility scheme applies to a UCC-
based implied warranty claim seeking damages for death or personal injury. I
write separately to explore the proper submission of that issue.

This is not our first occasion to consider whether comparative responsibility
principles apply to UCC-based implied warranty claims. In Signal Oil & Gas Co.
v. Universal Oil Products, 545 S.W.2d 907, 910 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 1977, writ
granted), the court of appeals held that, under traditional contributory
negligence principles, any negligence on the buyer’s[1] part would bar all
recovery on a UCC-based implied warranty claim. We disagreed, based on the
statute’s language:

The draftsmen of the Code obviously felt that consideration should be given to
the buyer's fault or negligence when determining recovery of consequential
damages for a breach of implied warranty. Section 2.714 of the Code establishes
the measure of damages for a breach of warranty. Section (c) thereunder states,
“(i)n a proper case any incidental and consequential damages” may also be
recovered. Section 2.715 defines “consequential damages” as including “injury
to person or property proximately resulting from any breach of warranty.”
(Emphasis added.) In Comment 5 to Section 2.715 the draftsmen of the Code
provided the following guidelines on proximate causation:

“(T)he question of ‘proximate’ cause turns on whether it was reasonable for the
buyer to use the goods without such inspection as would have revealed the
defects. If it was not reasonable for him to do so, or if he did in fact discover the
defect prior to his use, the injury would not proximately result from the breach
of warranty.” (Emphasis added.)

Comment 5 clearly indicates that the buyer's conduct may affect his recovery of
consequential damages under an implied warranty cause of action. In addition,
Comment 5 clearly speaks in terms of a “reasonable use” standard in
examining the buyer's conduct. Such a reasonable use standard is normally
associated with theories of negligence. Rourke v. Garza, 530 S.W.2d 794 (Tex.

However, the Code does not state that such buyer's negligence or fault will
totally bar recovery as does contributory negligence under traditional tort
principles. Rather, the Code and comments thereunder indicate that the buyer's
negligence or fault is central to the issue of proximate causation in awarding
consequential damages. Dallison v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 313 F.2d 343 (10th
Cir. 1962); Rasmus v. A. O. Smith Corporation, 158 F. Supp. 70 (D.Iowa 1958).

Signal Oil & Gas Co. v. Universal Oil Prods., 572 S.W.2d 320, 327-28 (Tex. 1978).
We recognized that “[t]he seller should only be held liable for that portion of the
consequential damages caused by the breach of implied warranty,” and thus
“the buyer may not recover consequential damages to the extent that the buyer’
s negligence or fault was a concurring proximate cause of such damages.” Id. at
329. We distinguished the UCC scheme from the comparative negligence
statute in effect at the time, noting that “[u]nlike comparative negligence, a
buyer is entitled to recover that portion of the damages caused by the
unsuitable product, even if the buyer’s negligence or fault constitutes a greater
cause of the damages than the seller’s breach.” Id. (citing Tex. Rev. Civ. Stat.
art. 2212a (repealed 1985)).

Nine years after Signal Oil, the Legislature amended the comparative
negligence statute and incorporated a 60% comparative responsibility bar in
personal injury, property damage, and death cases in which at least one
defendant was liable under a UCC chapter 2 breach of warranty theory. See Act
of Sept. 2, 1987, 70th Leg., 1st C.S., ch. 2, § 2.04, 1987 Tex. Gen. Laws 40, 40.
While the 1995 statutory revisions removed this language, they included instead
a 51% bar for all causes of action “based on tort.” Act of Sept. 1, 1995, 74th Leg.,
ch. 136, § 1, 1995 Tex. Gen. Laws 855, 859, amended by Act of Sept. 1, 2003, 78th
Leg., ch. 204, §§ 4.01, 4.10(1), 2003 Tex. Gen. Laws 855, 859. Leading
commentators recognize that state comparative fault schemes generally have
been applied to UCC-based implied warranty claims and that some sort of
comparative fault system should apply:

In the long run, we suspect that ideas of comparative fault will inevitably be the
rule and not the exception—at least in personal injury cases. It probably makes
little sense to apply comparative fault to the negligence claim and fail to do that
in a warranty or strict tort claim tried before the same jury, in the same
courtroom simultaneously.

James J. White & Robert S. Summers, Uniform Commercial Code § 11-8, at 760
(5th ed. 2006).

Moreover, while UCC section 2.715 discusses the buyer’s negligence and its
effect on an implied warranty recovery, the statute’s provisions stand in
contrast to the “comprehensive legislative fault scheme singularly applicable to
claims involving negotiable instruments” in revised article 3 of the UCC. See
Sw. Bank v. Info. Support Concepts, Inc., 149 S.W.3d 104, 111 (Tex. 2004)
(discussing revised article 3 and noting that it included detailed comparative
negligence provisions that applied to some, but not all, conversion claims); see
also Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 2A.520(b)(2) (applying section 2.715's definition of
consequential damages to lease-based claims). Chapter 33's application here
would not, therefore, “ignore the UCC itself and thwart its underlying purpose.”
Sw. Bank, 149 S.W.3d at 111. Nor does this case involve a vicarious-liability
statute that removes from consideration the actual conduct of the alleged
tortfeasor, making it difficult to harmonize with chapter 33. See F.F.P. Operating
Partners v. Duenez, 237 S.W.3d 680, 695 (Tex. 2007) (Jefferson, C.J., dissenting).
Thus, I agree with the Court that Garza’s implied warranty claim qualifies as a
cause of action based on tort and is therefore subject to Chapter 33's
proportionate responsibility scheme.

But chapter 33 requires a finding of proportionate responsibility on each claim:

The trier of fact, as to each cause of action asserted, shall determine the
percentage of responsibility, stated in whole numbers, for the following persons
with respect to each person’s causing or contributing to cause in any way the
harm for which recovery of damages is sought, whether by negligent act or
omission, by any defective or unreasonably dangerous product, by other
conduct or activity that violates an applicable legal standard, or by any
combination of these . . ..”

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.003 (emphasis added).

Here, the apportionment question immediately followed the negligence
question, and was directed only to it:

If you have answered “YES” to Question No. 1 [the negligence question], for
more than one of those named below, then answer the following question. . . .

The percentages you find must total 100 percent. The negligence attributable to
any one named below is not necessarily measured by the number of acts or
omissions found.


What percentage of the negligence that caused the death of Rolando Montez do
your [sic] find to be attributable to each of those found by you, in your answer to
Question No. 1?

A.        J.C.W. Electronics, Inc.                                                             15%

B.        The City of Port Isabel                                                              25%

C.        Quadrum Telecommunications, Inc.                                       -----

D.        Rolando Montez                                                                         60%

TOTAL            100%

The breach of implied warranty question was Question No. 9, and there was no
apportionment question asking about percentages of responsibility regarding
that claim. Nonetheless, the only way a buyer’s fault may be compared with a
seller’s for such a claim is to examine the nature of the liability attributable to
each. A seller will be liable if, as the jury here found, its product breaches an
implied warranty and that breach proximately caused the buyer’s damages.

By contrast, the buyer’s fault cannot be couched in terms of a breach of

As we recognized in Signal Oil, it is the buyer’s negligence that will impact his
recovery in a UCC-based breach of implied warranty claim. Signal Oil, 572 S.W.
2d at 328 (noting that “Comment 5 clearly speaks in terms of a ‘reasonable use’
standard in examining the buyer’s conduct” and “[s]uch a reasonable use
standard is normally associated with theories of negligence”). A buyer has not
breached an implied warranty, and a question inquiring about the buyer’s
breach would be nonsensical. Instead, a buyer’s negligence is the relevant
inquiry when apportioning fault for such a claim.

While the jury found that JCW breached an implied warranty, it also found
Rolando Montez negligent and apportioned sixty percent of the negligence to
him. Under chapter 33, Montez’s comparative negligence bars Garza’s claim.
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.001.

I would hold that a UCC-based implied warranty claim seeking personal injury
damages should be submitted to the jury with an apportionment question
inquiring about each actor’s “percentage of responsibility,” rather than
negligence, because that would include both the seller’s breach of warranty and
the buyer’s negligence.[2] See Brown v. Edwards Transfer Co., 764 S.W.2d 220,
224 n.2 (Tex. 1988).

Because the jury was asked about Montez’s negligence, however, and because
its finding bars Montez’s claim, JCW’s percentage of responsibility for damages
caused by the breach of implied warranty is immaterial. For these reasons, I
concur in the Court’s judgment.


Wallace B. Jefferson

Chief Justice

OPINION DELIVERED:     June 27, 2008                                       


[1] For ease of reference, I refer to the “buyer” but recognize (as the parties do) the UCC’s
categorization of an implied warranty of fitness in “any transaction, regardless of form, that creates a
lease of goods.” Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 2A.102. The parties dispute whether the UCC applies to
the implied warranty claim at issue here. We need not engage in that debate today, however.
Assuming the agreement involves a lease of goods and that an end user has an implied warranty
claim in the absence of privity, the jury’s 60% negligence finding as to Montez bars that claim, as
demonstrated below.

[2] Additionally, it seems to me that, in most cases, the parties could agree to submit a single
apportionment question to cover multiple theories of liability, provided that each theory has a common
factual basis to which the questions refer.