Danger In Tow...we helped these reporters.....KEY TRAIL EVIDENCE GOES MISSING.

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U-Haul International is the nation's largest provider of rental trailers. A Times investigation finds the company's practices raise the risk of accidents on the road.

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Key trial evidence goes missing

Injured customers suing U-Haul over accidents have sought key equipment, only to find it lost or discarded.

Pinned inside an overturned Ford Explorer on Interstate 5 in Bakersfield, Gabriel Koloszar looked up to see her friend Paulo Aguilar hanging unconscious from his seat belt, his blood dripping down on her.

Rescuers pulled Koloszar out through the windshield. When she tried to stand, another passenger cried out: "Oh my God, Gabby. Your feet!" Only then, she recalled, did she look down to see her mangled flesh.

The trauma of that morning turned to outrage after Koloszar and Aguilar sued U-Haul International Inc., alleging that the accident was caused by a defective tire on the trailer they had been towing.

When their attorneys sought to inspect the tire and rim, they were told that would be impossible.

The evidence had disappeared.

A Kern County Superior Court judge declared in December that he would sanction U-Haul for "extreme negligence" in losing the evidence. Two weeks later, a federal judge in Ohio penalized U-Haul for similar conduct in a separate case.

U-Haul, the leader of the do-it-yourself moving industry, has repeatedly lost, altered or discarded truck and trailer parts sought by injured customers who sued the company, a Times investigation found.

In some cases, the company scrapped or repaired damaged parts in defiance of court orders that they be preserved as evidence.

At least twice, judges have imposed on U-Haul an exceedingly rare and severe sanction for misconduct in a civil case: throwing out the company's defense and entering judgments in favor of plaintiffs who needed the missing evidence to pursue their claims.

U-Haul said that the few instances of lost or spoiled evidence were purely accidental and that "the complexity of managing equipment across thousands of locations" sometimes led to mistakes.

Although it is not uncommon for parties in litigation to be accused of destroying or discarding documents, legal experts said it is unusual for it to happen with physical evidence.

It is unknown how many times this has occurred in lawsuits against U-Haul. No independent source gathers information on such cases.

U-Haul said judges had sanctioned it for spoiling evidence in "at best, a handful of cases" and had never ruled that it had done so intentionally. Asked for a list of those cases, U-Haul said: "We do not have such a list."

From interviews with plaintiffs' lawyers and court records, The Times identified 11 instances since 1989 in which records show that U-Haul lost, altered or discarded evidence. Judges sanctioned the company in some of those cases. In the others, plaintiffs did not seek sanctions, or the cases were settled before courts could rule on motions for sanctions.

U-Haul said that it has been sued more than 10,000 times over the last 20 years and that the few examples of sanctions should be viewed in that context. They "do not constitute a pattern of destruction of evidence," said Edward J. "Joe" Shoen, chairman of U-Haul and its parent company, Amerco Inc.

Shoen said that as a lawyer, he is particularly sensitive to the need to preserve evidence and that destroying it would not be in U-Haul's interest.

"It's about the worst thing you can have happen in a lawsuit," he said. "You've just dug yourself a hole because now everyone assumes the worst."

Companies have a duty to preserve evidence not only when a suit has been filed, but also when they know one is likely due to injuries or deaths. Even the inadvertent loss or destruction of evidence may be punished by the courts because it can deprive the other side of a chance to prove its case.

U-Haul said it has strengthened its evidence protection in recent years by requiring its agents to obtain the legal department's approval before putting equipment from accidents back in service. The company declined to provide a copy of the policy.

Dale A. Oesterle, a business law professor at Ohio State University, said an occasional failure to preserve evidence "may not be an indictment of corporate policy or corporate attitude…. I don't think you can expect a corporation to have a perfect record."

But Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, said that after losing evidence once or twice, a company would be expected to put a stop to it.

"If the company had been previously sanctioned for this conduct, it's hard to imagine a good-faith reason why" it would continue, he said. "This is something I've never heard of … not with a major company."


At the wheel of his Explorer on Labor Day weekend 2002, Aguilar was heading home with Koloszar and two other friends from the Burning Man counterculture festival in the Nevada desert.

Their camping gear stashed behind them in a U-Haul trailer, they were about 100 miles north of Los Angeles when the Explorer flipped and rolled, coming to rest in the median of I-5.

Aguilar, an insurance agent who was 20 and living in North Hollywood, suffered a fractured skull and a broken vertebra in his neck, which required two surgeries to repair.

Koloszar, then 24, was hospitalized for two months for treatment of foot injuries, which required multiple surgeries and skin grafts. She was left with deep scars, diminished sensation in her feet and more than $700,000 in medical bills.

She and Aguilar each sued U-Haul, contending that a worn tire on the trailer suddenly deflated, causing the trailer and the Explorer to veer to the left. Koloszar's suit also named Ford Motor Co., asserting that the SUV's instability contributed to the crash.

In a deposition, a U-Haul manager acknowledged that the trailer should never have been rented because there was almost no tread in the middle of one of its tires. Even so, U-Haul denied this caused the wreck, citing a police report that Aguilar allowed the Explorer to drift and then overcorrected the steering.

Soon after the accident, a plaintiff's expert got a brief look at the suspect tire and rim. U-Haul said it stored the components at a company shop in Bakersfield, with a sign saying they should not be disturbed.

But in August 2005, after months of requests by the plaintiffs' lawyers to examine the parts more thoroughly, U-Haul reported that they had vanished.

"As to the tires, wheels and/or rims," a U-Haul lawyer said in a letter, "I am told that they are missing in action."

The company said in court papers that a former employee who burglarized the Bakersfield shop had probably stolen or junked the tire and rim — making the company the victim.

"If the tire and wheel were indeed stolen," the company said, "this was a criminal act against U-Haul."

Given its "diligent effort" to preserve the evidence, the loss of the parts was at worst "merely negligent" and not deliberate, U-Haul said.

"How convenient for them," said Koloszar, who now lives in Berkeley. "Isn't it ironic that you would just lose a key piece of evidence? They claim it to be stolen, but who would really steal a busted tire and rim?"

Citing other cases in which U-Haul had lost evidence, Koloszar's attorneys asked Kern County Superior Court Judge Louis P. Etcheverry to punish the company.

"U-Haul has an established pattern and practice of discovery abuse, including conveniently losing critical evidence, and the practice continues in spite of U-Haul having been previously sanctioned by other courts for its conduct," the lawyers said.

Etcheverry said in December that because of U-Haul's "extreme negligence," he would impose sanctions before the trial, which had been scheduled for July.

"Otherwise," he said, "you are encouraging everybody just to deep-six the evidence."

The threat of sanctions was removed last week, when Koloszar reached a confidential settlement with U-Haul and Ford. Aguilar also settled his suit.

James Rouse, a lawyer for Koloszar, said the impending sanctions were "a substantial motivating factor in bringing U-Haul to the table."

Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, responded: "While Mr. Rouse is entitled to his opinion, he is incorrect."

Late last year, a federal judge in Ohio sanctioned U-Haul for a similar lapse.

Christian S. Strong, Mindy Swegles and Brian Hunzicker were returning to Kentucky from a Florida vacation in May 2002 when a U-Haul motorcycle trailer they were towing swerved and their Explorer overturned on a Tennessee highway. Strong and Swegles had recently graduated from college and became engaged in Florida. Hunzicker and Strong were best friends.

Swegles, then 23, who was driving without her seat belt fastened, suffered fractures and a head injury that her physicians said left her brain-damaged and unable to pursue a teaching career.

A suit filed by Swegles and her two passengers said a defective trailer axle damaged a tire and caused the crash. U-Haul blamed Swegles for inattentive driving and going too fast.

Soon after the accident, the plaintiffs' experts inspected the trailer's tires and rims at a U-Haul storage site in Knoxville, Tenn. But when it came time for further testing in July 2004 at a lab in Columbus, Ohio, the trailer arrived minus the tires and rims.

"I thought it very odd, given the fact that the trailer clearly had an 'evidence hold' tag on it," said William A. Posey, who represented the plaintiffs. "While they say they have policies and procedures to protect evidence, clearly they don't."

On Dec. 28, days before the trial, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson sanctioned U-Haul by excluding some of the expert testimony it planned to present.

Noting that U-Haul's lawyers "suggested that the tires and rims were salvaged for use on another trailer," Watson concluded: "Whatever steps defendants took to protect the trailer and its parts were obviously inadequate."

Watson later punished U-Haul again after its lawyer violated his order by telling the jury that the plaintiffs could not support their case with physical evidence. The judge said the lawyer's conduct was "unbelievable," given that U-Haul had lost the trailer parts.

Watson told jurors they could infer that the lost evidence would have been "unfavorable to the defendants."

In February, the jury found that the trailer was not defective but awarded the plaintiffs nearly $2.6 million in damages because of U-Haul's failure to advise them to drive slowly and take other precautions.

To prevent destruction of U-Haul equipment, plaintiffs' attorneys obtained a court order within days of a 1995 rollover in Wyoming that killed Donna Jean Cullen. The order barred U-Haul from "disturbing or altering" the equipment she had rented: a tow dolly for hauling a second vehicle.

Cullen, 32, of Helena, Mont., was pulling an Isuzu Trooper behind her Mazda pickup, a combination that violated U-Haul's own safety rules for tow dollies. The rules say that to ensure stability, the lead vehicle must weigh at least 750 pounds more than the vehicle being towed. The Mazda and Trooper were nearly the same weight.

According to a suit filed by her family, Cullen was northbound on Interstate 25 in northern Wyoming "when the towed Isuzu Trooper began to sway uncontrollably from side to side," causing both vehicles to skid sideways and flip over.

Documents filed in court showed the dolly had undergone extensive repairs days before it was rented to Cullen.

The company moved the dolly from a wrecking yard in Casper, Wyo., to U-Haul offices in Denver to conduct examinations, actions permitted by the court. Within 45 days, the dolly was to be turned over to Cullen's lawyers.

When the deadline passed and the plaintiffs demanded to know the whereabouts of the dolly, a company lawyer informed them that it had been repaired and returned to service.

"When you have a court order," said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, "bells and whistles should go off, and everything should stop."

U-Haul said its violation was "inadvertent" and caused little harm to the plaintiffs because their investigator had photographed the dolly before it was put back on the road.

But courts sanctioned U-Haul for obstructing the plaintiffs' efforts to learn the dolly's repair history and why it was not preserved as evidence. The company was ordered to reimburse fees and expenses of the Cullen family's lawyers.

U-Haul settled the case with a confidential payment in 1999.


Judges have decided at least twice that U-Haul's conduct in losing evidence was egregious enough to warrant striking the company's defenses and entering verdicts in favor of its opponents.

One instance involved a suit filed by Vivian Cabasso after she was severely injured in a 1995 accident.

Cabasso's fiance, Lee Goldberg, had rented a U-Haul trailer to move his belongings from Florida to New York. On a downhill stretch of Interstate 77 in Statesville, N.C., the trailer began to sway.

"I looked out, and the trailer is coming up beside me and it's just going side to side," Goldberg recalled. "It just took control of the entire vehicle and flipped us over."

They rolled several times. Goldberg escaped with minor injuries, but Cabasso, then 49 and a mother of two, suffered a fractured skull, broken neck and shattered arm. She required years of rehabilitation.

In her lawsuit, Cabasso maintained that inoperable trailer brakes caused the wreck. U-Haul said the brakes worked and Goldberg was at fault.

Soon after the accident, a U-Haul expert examined the braking system. But over the next several years, the company failed to comply with court orders requiring that Cabasso's experts be given access to the trailer, court records show.

At one point, U-Haul said it was trying to pin down the address where the trailer was being stored, Cabasso's lawyers said in a court filing.

In reality, the lawyers said, the trailer was left "lying outdoors, exposed to the elements" at the same U-Haul yard in North Carolina where the company's expert had looked at it.

In November 1999, U-Haul disclosed that the braking system "is no longer mounted on the trailer and its whereabouts are unknown."

In response, the trial judge struck U-Haul's defense, effectively deciding the case in Cabasso's favor. All that remained was for the jury to decide how much U-Haul should have to pay in damages. A New York state appeals court affirmed the ruling in 2001.

To avoid a trial on damages, U-Haul settled the suit with an undisclosed payment.

Goldberg, a lawyer, said he and Cabasso "were astounded" by the disappearance of the brakes. "It was the pivotal point of the case, and it was gutted."

Though they ultimately prevailed, Goldberg said U-Haul's tactics put him and Cabasso through "three or four years of torture."

In a statement to The Times, U-Haul said it had stored the trailer with an "Evidence Insurance Hold" sticker and could not explain why the brakes were removed. The company said its expert found that the brakes worked, and that it was "simply illogical" to think it had intentionally trashed helpful evidence.

In 1996, an Alabama judge struck the company's defense for violating an order to preserve components of a tow dolly involved in a deadly wreck.

Roger D. Waldon Sr.,
46, was towing a Mercury Cougar on a dolly behind his Dodge truck when he lost control, crashed, and was thrown from his pickup and fatally injured. Waldon's son sued U-Haul, claiming that the dolly was defective.

Six days after the accident, plaintiff lawyers obtained a court order barring U-Haul from altering the dolly or removing it from a wrecking yard.

The judge later amended the order to allow U-Haul to transfer the dolly to a warehouse. But he ordered U-Haul "not to remove, loosen, adjust, disassemble or alter any of the components."

Inspecting the dolly, plaintiffs' experts found worn tire straps and a broken hook — proof, they said, that the device had been rented in a dangerous condition. But when the dolly arrived at a metallurgical lab for further testing, the suspect components were gone.

Walker County Circuit Judge John L. Madison issued a default judgment against U-Haul, ruling that "the only issue remaining is that of damages for the unlawful homicide which did occur directly as a result of the wrongful acts" of U-Haul.

As in the Cabasso case, U-Haul avoided a trial on damages by settling the suit for an undisclosed sum.

In a statement, U-Haul said it was "not clear and it was never established how the evidence was lost." But the company said it was "appropriately sanctioned" because Waldon "could no longer prosecute his claim in the absence of the trailer."


Judges have sanctioned U-Haul in other lawsuits for withholding information, such as lists of previous accidents that might show its awareness of hazards.

That's what happened in the case of Donald Marx.

As Marx, then 40, was getting his tank filled at a gas station in Grants Pass, Ore., a rented U-Haul truck waiting behind him lurched forward, crushing his leg against his own vehicle.

Lawyers for Marx and the driver of the U-Haul said the truck slipped out of park because of a faulty transmission. U-Haul blamed the accident on driver error, noting that a police officer at the scene drove the truck and found nothing wrong with the transmission.

Listening to lawyers at an August 2001 hearing, Oregon judge Robert W. Redding was not pleased.

Marx's lawyers complained that U-Haul had tried to deceive them by making the truck available for testing without disclosing that the transmission had been replaced. Marx's lawyers discovered this some time after taking the truck to a transmission specialist who found no defects.

The hearing brought forth other complaints of stonewalling, including U-Haul's failure to comply with a court order to disclose other reports of trucks moving while in park.

Redding fined U-Haul $10,000 and warned that if the case went to trial, he would allow Marx's lawyers to put in evidence an internal document known as the "dumb shit" memo.

The memo, described by the judge as "that tasteless piece of literature," was written by U-Haul founder L.S. Shoen, company chairman from 1945 to 1986.

In the 1976 memo, Shoen coached U-Haul managers to be as unhelpful as possible to a plaintiff's "hired gun" lawyer if called to testify. Don't lie, he said, but embrace the fleeting nature of memory.

"After 48 hours the memory curve drops off to approximately 10% of what we originally saw or heard," he wrote. "So the first rule is to realize that you are a 'dumb shit' and be glad that you are."

U-Haul settled the Marx case in 2002 for an undisclosed sum.

Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, described Shoen's memo as "simply a folksy — and sensible — reminder that if you do not know the answer to a question, then say you do not know. This is the same advice given to witnesses every day by lawyers."

Taub added: "All witnesses who testify on our behalf are instructed to tell the truth."

In Los Angeles, U-Haul's resistance to pretrial discovery brought a judge's anger to a boil in February 2003.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason was presiding in a suit filed by Fortino and Susana Figueroa after a 2001 crash that left him a quadriplegic and her with leg fractures. The Figueroas lost control of their Ford Explorer while using a U-Haul dolly to tow a pickup.

U-Haul repeatedly switched defense counsel, causing delays and frustrating attempts by the Figueroas' lawyers to test the dolly and obtain U-Haul documents. Among other things, U-Haul resisted requests for a list of incidents in which people had been killed or injured in wrecks involving dollies.

Bryant-Deason said some of U-Haul's objections were "just ridiculous." When the company failed to meet her deadlines, the judge imposed a $25,000 fine for "repeated, repeated, repeated violations" of her orders.

Bryant-Deason also struck some of the company's defenses. U-Haul settled the case in May 2003 for $1.6 million, court records show. Ford Motor Co. paid an $880,000 settlement.

Three months later, an Arizona judge sanctioned U-Haul in a wrongful-death suit after finding that it had provided different accident lists to plaintiffs in separate tow dolly cases.

The Arizona suit stemmed from a 1999 wreck that killed Maria Lozano-Millan, her 7-year-old son and her sister.

In response to the plaintiffs' requests, U-Haul furnished reports of 168 previous tow dolly wrecks. One of the lawyers, John A. Commerford, noticed discrepancies between the list and those produced in two other cases.

"The idea they would play games with discovery when there are three families who are absolutely crushed and destroyed was beyond the pale," Commerford said.

State Superior Court Judge Anna M. Montoya-Paez ordered U-Haul to pay $10,000 in sanctions in August 2003 and warned that future abuse of discovery rules could result in a $100,000 fine. U-Haul settled the case for a confidential sum.

Commenting on the Figueroa and Lozano-Millan cases, U-Haul attorney Taub said that in each case the court was justified in imposing sanctions.

"We paid the price for it," Taub said. "It's not the way we litigate now."

For example, company executives said, U-Haul no longer takes the position that it cannot furnish data on accidents involving its vehicles because the information is under the control of a separate company, Republic Western Insurance Co. U-Haul and Republic Western are both subsidiaries of Amerco.

U-Haul advanced this argument in 1998 in a Canadian suit involving a man who suffered brain damage in a tow dolly crash.

John C. Abromavage, U-Haul's director of engineering services, testified in that case that he received daily accident data by computer from Republic Western, but could not save it. He said that after he read the information, it would "disappear" from his screen and he could not retrieve it, court records show.

Justice M.J. Allan of British Columbia Supreme Court said Abromavage's testimony reflected a "corporate policy of keeping potentially incriminating documents out of the possession of U-Haul" so it would not have to disclose them. Allan ordered U-Haul to produce accident reports sought by the plaintiff. U-Haul settled the case before it had finished doing so.

U-Haul General Counsel Larry De Respino said the company has adopted a more cooperative attitude. U-Haul aims to provide all "reasonable, relevant evidence," he said, because "we have nothing to hide."



Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.

Gabriel Koloszar shows

( Al Seib / LAT )
Gabriel Koloszar shows pictures of her injuries from a 2002 rollover accident in which she was a passenger in an SUV that was pulling a U-Haul trailer. Her feet required multiple surgeries and skin grafts. She and the Explorer’s driver sued U-Haul International, saying the accident was caused by a defective tire on the trailer they were towing. U-Haul blamed the wreck on driver errors. The judge said he would impose sanctions against U-Haul after the tire and rim disappeared from a company shop. Without admitting liability, U-Haul agreed last week to an undisclosed settlement.

U-Haul General Counsel Larry De Respino

( Al Seib / LAT )
U-Haul General Counsel Larry De Respino, left, and Assistant General Counsel Steve Taub discuss legal policies. The company aims to provide all “reasonable, relevant evidence,” said De Respino.

Christian Strong and his wife

( David Kohl / For the Times )
Christian Strong and his wife, the former Mindy Swegles, were heading home from a Florida vacation in 2002 when the trailer they towing swerved and they overturned. Their lawsuit said a fracture in the trailer's axle damaged a tire and caused the crash. U-Haul blamed driver error. Plaintiffs' experts inspected the tires and rims shortly after the accident but, when it came time for further testing, they were missing. A U.S. district judge sanctioned U-Haul before the trial by excluding some of its expert testimony. The jury found the trailer was not defective but awared the plaintiffs nearly $2.6 million in damages for U-Haul's failure to warn them about the risks of towing.


Driving with rented risks

U-Haul International is the nation's largest provider of rental trailers. A Times investigation finds the company's practices raise the risk of accidents on the road.

TUCSON - Marissa Sternberg sits in her wheelchair, barely able to move or speak. Caregivers are always at her side. Progress is measured in tiny steps: an unclenched fist, a look of recognition, a smile for her father.

Nearly four years ago, Sternberg was a high-spirited 19-year-old bound for veterinary school in Denver. She rented a U-Haul trailer to move her belongings, hitched it to her Toyota Land Cruiser and hit the road with her two dogs and a friend.

That evening, as the Land Cruiser descended a hill in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, the trailer began to swing from side to side, pushing the SUV as if trying to muscle it off the road.

"I knew something bad was going to happen," recalled Corina Maya Hollander, who was taking a turn behind the wheel. "We both knew."

The Land Cruiser flipped and bounced along Interstate 25. The trailer broke free and careened off the road. Hollander crawled from the wreckage, her head throbbing.

Sternberg, who had been thrown from the SUV, lay sprawled on the highway, unable to move.

"Where are my dogs?" she screamed. "Somebody go find my dogs!"

Sternberg fell victim to a peril long familiar to U-Haul International: "trailer sway," a leading cause of severe towing accidents.

Traveling downhill or shaken by a sharp turn or a gust of wind, a trailer can begin swinging so violently that only the most experienced — or fortunate — drivers can regain control and avoid catastrophe.

U-Haul, the nation's largest provider of rental trailers, says it is "highly conservative" about safety. But a yearlong Times investigation, which included more than 200 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court records, police reports, consumer complaints and other documents, found that company practices have heightened the risk of towing accidents.

The safest way to tow is with a vehicle that weighs much more than the trailer. A leading trailer expert and U-Haul consultant has likened this principle to "motherhood and apple pie."

Yet U-Haul allows customers to pull trailers as heavy as or heavier than their own vehicles.

It often allows trailers to stay on the road for months without a thorough safety inspection, in violation of its own policies.

Bad brakes have been a recurring problem with its large trailers. The one Sternberg rented lacked working brakes.

Its small and midsize trailers have no brakes at all, a policy that conflicts with the laws of at least 14 states.

It relaxed a key safety rule as it pushed to increase rentals of one type of trailer, used to haul vehicles, and then failed to enforce even the weakened standard. Customers were killed or maimed in ensuing crashes that might have been avoided.

The company's approach to mitigating the risks of towing relies heavily on customers, many of them novices, some as young as 18. They are expected to grasp and carry out detailed instructions for loading and towing trailers, and to respond coolly in a crisis.

But many renters never see those instructions — distribution of U-Haul's user guide is spotty.

To those who receive and read it, the guide offers this advice for coping with a swinging trailer: Stay off the car's brakes and hold the wheel straight. Many drivers will reflexively do the opposite, which can make the swaying worse.

Yet when accidents occur, U-Haul almost always blames the customer.

Proper loading of the trailer is crucial in preventing sway. U-Haul tells customers to put 60% of the weight in the front half and suggests a three-step process to check that the load is balanced correctly.

But the company has declined to offer an inexpensive, portable scale that would help renters get it right.

U-Haul vigorously defends its safety record. Executives say that the company diligently maintains its fleet of more than 200,000 trucks and trailers, and that decades of testing, experience and engineering advances have steadily reduced its accident rates.

"Our equipment is suited for your son and daughter," said Edward J. "Joe" Shoen, chairman of U-Haul and its parent company, Amerco. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say U-Haul is rated 10 in safety."

It is unknown how many U-Haul customers have crashed because of trailer sway. No government agency keeps track of such accidents, and U-Haul declined to provide a comprehensive count or year-by-year figures.

But statistical snapshots the company has produced in civil litigation hint at the scope of the problem and show that it has persisted for decades.

In a lawsuit stemming from the Sternberg crash, U-Haul listed 173 reported sway-related accidents from 1993 to 2003 involving a single trailer model.

In a case from the 1970s, the company disclosed 1,173 such crashes involving all trailer types during a 3 1/2-year period.

In other cases, it has listed up to 650 reported sway-related wrecks from about 1990 to 2002 involving two-wheeled trailers called tow dollies.

Still, U-Haul says statistics indicate that drivers towing its trailers are less likely to crash than are other motorists. This is so, U-Haul says, because people drive more cautiously when moving their families and belongings.

The claim has not been independently verified and is viewed skeptically by some outside experts.

Shoen said sway-related accidents almost always result from customer mistakes, primarily failing to load the trailer properly and exceeding U-Haul's recommended top speed of 45 mph. The company said both errors contributed to the Sternberg crash.

"U-Haul customers drive the equivalent of to the moon and back over 10 times a day," Shoen said in a recent conference call with investors, "and, regrettably, accidents occur."


U-Haul International Inc., founded in 1945, is the leader of the do-it-yourself moving industry. It sends millions of Americans out on the road annually in its signature orange-and-white trucks and trailers.

The Phoenix-based company, built on low cost and convenience, has about 1,450 company-owned centers and 14,500 independent dealers. It took in about $1.5 billion from equipment rentals last year.

Many U-Haul customers are college students, weekend movers and others who have never hauled a trailer before.

It is not unusual for a trailer to swing slightly. This normally poses little or no threat, but can be a sign of trouble.

Accidents often happen when a driver gains speed going downhill. The trailer whips from side to side more and more powerfully and finally takes control of the tow vehicle — a situation known as "the tail wagging the dog."

Peter Keith, a Canadian safety expert, described the danger in a 1984 report for transportation officials in British Columbia.

"When the trailer suddenly starts [to] swing violently, the driver can often be caught unawares and is further faced with a very dangerous situation which requires considerable skill and presence of mind to resolve," Keith wrote. "Probably only a small minority of drivers are in practice capable of bringing the vehicle combination back under control."

The weight of the tow vehicle relative to the trailer is a crucial factor. The heavier the tow vehicle, the easier it is to control the combination.

Richard H. Klein, an authority on trailer dynamics who has served as an expert witness for U-Haul, underscored the point during one court appearance. He was asked if he'd rather be driving "a larger tow vehicle than a smaller one" if a trailer began to swing.

"Yes," he replied. "That's like motherhood and apple pie."

In keeping with this tenet, other major companies do not allow customers to pull rental equipment with passenger vehicles. Penske Truck Leasing and Budget Truck Rental compete with U-Haul in renting two types of tow equipment: tow dollies and auto transports.

But Penske and Budget provide equipment only to customers who rent large trucks to pull the load. They say safety is the reason.

Penske's trucks are "engineered to pull these types of loads," said spokesman Randolph P. Ryerson. The company has "no way to make sure other vehicles would have the same adequate towing capabilities," he said.

U-Haul allows customers to tow its trailers, tow dollies and other equipment with passenger vehicles as well as with the company's large trucks. Most renters use SUVs or pickups, which have a high center of gravity and are prone to rollovers.

Moreover, customers are permitted to pull trailers that weigh as much as or more than their own vehicles.

Under U-Haul rules, the company's largest trailers, which are equipped with brakes, can outweigh the customer's vehicle by up to 25% when fully loaded. Smaller units, which do not have brakes, can weigh as much as the tow vehicle.

U-Haul says extensive research at an Arizona test track and other sites has shown that its weight rules are safe, provided customers use its equipment as instructed.

But the rules conflict with the safety recommendations of some auto manufacturers.

Ford Motor Co., for example, advises owners of the 2007 Crown Victoria, which weighs about 4,100 pounds, to tow no more than 1,500 pounds. Owners of the lighter Mustang are advised not to pull a trailer weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

U-Haul will allow a Crown Victoria to tow a trailer weighing up to 4,400 pounds and a Mustang to pull up to 2,500 pounds.

(U-Haul has banned towing with Ford Explorers since late 2003. Shoen said the SUV was not unsafe but had become "a magnet for attorneys.")

Honda Motor Co. says its vehicles should not pull trailers that weigh more than 1,000 pounds unless the trailers have brakes. General Motors offers the same advice for many of its models. Nissan Motor Co. tells owners of its Pathfinder SUV that trailer brakes "MUST be used" with a trailer weighing 1,000 pounds or more.

Yet U-Haul permits customers driving Pathfinders as well as Honda and GM vehicles to tow un-braked trailers that weigh more than that.

Some vehicle makers also recommend using sway-control devices with trailers above certain weights. These devices come in various forms and include bars or brackets that limit side-to-side movement of the trailer.

U-Haul says such equipment is not needed when "towing a properly loaded U-Haul trailer."

Automakers say their guidelines are meant to promote safety and prevent undue wear on engines, brakes and other components.

"We would consider it unsafe to tow outside of those recommendations because that is what we tested the vehicle to be capable of towing," said Honda spokesman Chris Martin. "We'd rather be safe than have someone get into an accident."

In response, U-Haul said: "Our recommendations are based upon 61 years of experience, knowledge of our rental trailers and exhaustive testing spanning decades."


Cargo trailers are not the only U-Haul equipment that is vulnerable to sway. It can also happen with the company's tow dollies.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans use these two-wheeled trailers to haul vehicles across town or across the country.

U-Haul imposed tough conditions when it began renting the devices in 1982. It required that the tow vehicle weigh at least twice as much as the one to be towed. This would "ensure adequate braking and control," a company manual said.

But the rule crimped sales. Towing a typical-size car required a giant pickup or similar vehicle. John C. Abromavage, U-Haul's engineering director, testified in one lawsuit that the 2-to-1 standard "doesn't make sense other than to restrict your own market."

In 1986, U-Haul relaxed the rule, requiring that the tow vehicle be only 750 pounds heavier than the one behind it. Over the next few years, the company increased the maximum weight of vehicles that could be hauled on dollies, and lifted a ban on towing with small jeeps and SUVs.

The new policy boosted dolly rentals. But it conflicted with the guidelines of Dethmers Manufacturing Co., an Iowa firm that produced many of the U-Haul dollies used in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Dethmers recommended that the tow vehicle weigh at least 1,000 pounds more than the dolly and the second vehicle combined.

U-Haul said its relaxed standard still provided a reasonable safety margin. But in the past employees and dealers frequently ignored the rule, sometimes with tragic results, The Times found.

Before renting a dolly, U-Haul agents were supposed to check a manual to make sure the tow vehicle was heavy enough. If not, the rental was to be rejected.

That was news to two employees at a U-Haul dealer in Nogales, Ariz. In February 1999, one of them filled out a contract for a Ford Ranger to tow a Ford Tempo. The other hitched a tow dolly to the Ranger.

Because the two vehicles weighed nearly the same, the rental was prohibited under U-Haul rules. Both employees said later in depositions that they had never seen, much less used, the U-Haul manual.

Maria Lozano-Millan, 32, rode off in the Ranger with her 7-year-old son, Luis, and her sister. They drove to El Paso, picked up the sister's disabled Tempo, and headed back home.

They never made it.

Descending a hill on Interstate 10 south of Benson, Ariz., the tow dolly and the Tempo fishtailed, pushing the Ranger off the road. The pickup's roof was crushed as it skidded along a rocky outcropping, killing all three occupants.

U-Haul denied the weight violation caused the accident. Responding to the family's lawsuit, the company blamed Lozano-Millan's sister for speeding and for hitting the brakes when the trailer began to sway, contrary to U-Haul's safety instructions.

But a former U-Haul area manager said under oath that the employees' oversight caused the "senseless" tragedy.

When he learned of the wreck, testimony showed, he called the dealership's manager and said: "You just killed somebody."

U-Haul settled the case with an undisclosed payment. The company said it cut ties with the dealer, who violated "policies and procedures in the rental of this combination."

Mario Lozano, 50, Maria's companion and Luis' father, carries worn photos of them in his wallet and lights a candle in their memory on their birthdays.

"Every day that passes is getting me closer to joining them somewhere," he said.


The Times reviewed police reports and other records on 222 crashes nationwide from 1989 through 2004 in which drivers lost control while pulling U-Haul tow dollies.

In 105 cases, the documents contained enough detail to determine the vehicle weights.

In 51 of those crashes — 49% — the rentals violated U-Haul's rule requiring the tow vehicle to be at least 750 pounds heavier than the one being towed.

In some of the crashes, the tow vehicle weighed less than the one it was towing.

At least 12 people were killed in the ensuing wrecks.

Unsafe weight combinations may not always be U-Haul's fault. The company relies on the renters of dollies to provide accurate information about what kind of vehicle they will tow, and some do not, former employees said. It could not be determined if that happened in any of the cases studied by The Times.

Casey Curtis, who rented a U-Haul dolly in 2002, said he was never asked what he planned to tow and didn't realize weight could be a safety issue.

Curtis, a construction worker from Orem, Utah, had the dolly hitched to his Suzuki Samurai and used it to tow a Geo Tracker, a vehicle of nearly equal weight.

Going down a hill in Utah in high winds, the dolly began to slide side-to-side. Fighting for control, Curtis overcorrected the steering, a police report said. The trailer came loose and flipped. Curtis crashed head-on into an oncoming car.

Several people were hurt. Curtis, then 25, escaped with minor injuries, but says he still has "slow-motion" nightmares about the wreck.

"They didn't even ask me what I was towing," he said. "I had no idea what kind of consequences came from not having a heavier tow vehicle."

Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, said the company has curbed weight violations. In 2001, it began phasing in a computerized towing manual that blocks the rental contract if an agent types in an improper combination. Taub said violations "are less of an occurrence now."

However, current and former U-Haul dealers and employees said the system, though an improvement, isn't foolproof. A determined customer could lie about what he is towing — just as a dealer could deliberately enter the wrong vehicle model to complete the sale.

U-Haul also says there have been fewer dolly accidents since a wider model, designed for greater stability, was phased in starting in the late 1990s. Shoen said it has eliminated sway: "We're not experiencing it in the new product."

But documents produced by U-Haul in a Kentucky lawsuit show that several dozen customers have filed claims alleging that they lost control and crashed using the wider dollies.

The Kentucky case involved just such an accident. Airline pilot Chris Burke was moving his family from Indiana to Florida in 2002, towing a Ford Contour. When the Contour fishtailed on Interstate 65 near Louisville, Burke's Explorer smashed into a guardrail and flipped onto its side.

Burke's infant son, Ryan, suffered a fractured skull. His wife, Corry, 25, sustained severe spinal-cord damage, leaving her a paraplegic.

The rental met U-Haul's current weight standard, but Burke's lawyers contended that the company should never have loosened its original 2-to-1 weight rule.

"They knew then and they know now that you needed a larger vehicle in front," lawyer Peter Perlman told the jury. "That's just simply physics."

U-Haul's lawyer responded that the current weight rule was "provably safe" and that the wider dolly "is safe, is stable, is controllable."

U-Haul contended that Burke was driving too fast — estimates of his speed ranged from 50 to 60 mph — and that he lost control on a rain-slick road.

Nevertheless, the jury found U-Haul liable for renting "unreasonably dangerous" equipment and awarded $11.6 million in damages, reducing the amount by about a tenth after finding that Corry Burke was not wearing a seat belt.

Chris Burke said the verdict has not diminished his bitterness.

"Profits are No. 1," he said of U-Haul. "Safety concern for their customer is last. My wife will never walk again. There's not a day in my son's life when she will be able to pick him up and hug him. A judgment can't return that."


Marissa Sternberg was a born caregiver.

At age 12, she worked with disabled children in a therapeutic horseback-riding program. When her grandmother was going blind, Sternberg read to her and served as her chauffeur. In high school, she nursed her dog back to health when the boxer was stricken with a potentially fatal disease.

She went to grade school in Tucson with Corina Hollander's son. Despite the difference in age, the women became friends, sharing a love of animals.

In September 2003, Sternberg was set to start classes at a school in Denver that trains veterinary technicians, and she asked Hollander to make the drive with her.

Sternberg and her boyfriend, Michael Lemons, packed her bed, television and other belongings into a 6-by-12-foot U-Haul trailer.

They noticed the trailer was in "horrible condition," Lemons recalled. Springs in the suspension were so corroded that they resembled "stalactites," he said.

Sternberg called a U-Haul helpline, and a representative agreed that she should exchange the trailer. But the next morning — Sept. 3 — an employee at a local U-Haul center made some minor adjustments and sent her on her way. Hollander said Sternberg was "agitated" about the trailer's condition but eager to get going.

By 10 a.m., they were on the road.

As they left Tucson, the trailer began to rock Sternberg's Land Cruiser — "like a boat," Hollander recalled.

Sternberg tapped the SUV's brakes and the rocking stopped. This continued intermittently as they left Arizona and entered southern New Mexico.

Late that afternoon, they stopped for gas near Socorro, N.M., and Hollander took the wheel. Soon after, the Toyota reached the crest of a hill on northbound Interstate 25 in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Below, the Rio Grande meandered through a lush valley rimmed with rugged mountains.

Hollander said she was going 45 to 50 mph and gained speed as she went downhill, reaching 60 mph. The trailer started to swerve. Hollander said she tapped the brakes but could not slow the vehicles. The swaying became violent.

"There was no way you could control it," she recalled. "It was sheer terror."

The Land Cruiser flipped, ending up on its side in the passing lane of the interstate. The trailer landed upside-down on the median.

Passersby stopped to tend to the two women and summon help. One of Sternberg's dogs was badly injured and had to be put down. The other lost a leg but survived.

In the ambulance, Hollander said she told Sternberg: "Marissa, just tell my family that I love them very much, in case I don't pull through this."

She said Sternberg responded: "Corina, we're lucky to be alive. We're going to be fine. We're all going to be fine."


Experts who examined the trailer for Sternberg's family found that its brakes were badly corroded and inoperable.

A month earlier, a customer had rented the same trailer in Missouri, and the U-Haul agent told her "it had no brakes," she said in a deposition.

By the time Sternberg rented it, the trailer had not had a thorough safety check in more than eight months, according to its U-Haul inspection sticker. It had been rented 19 times in that period.

Under U-Haul's rules, the trailer should have undergone a "safety certification," including a check of its brakes, tires and other essential parts, at least every 30 days.

U-Haul initially said skid marks and other evidence suggested the brakes were working at the time of the accident. Later, Shoen acknowledged to The Times that they were not. Even so, the company said defective brakes did not cause the crash.

After its investigators examined the battered trailer, the company said Sternberg loaded it improperly. U-Haul faulted Hollander for going too fast and turning the wheel when the swaying began.

U-Haul also contended that Sternberg was not wearing a seat belt, although the state trooper who investigated the crash concluded that she was.

Without admitting liability, the company settled the suit in May 2005. Sternberg attorney Patrick E. Broom declined to disclose the terms.

Shoen said in an interview that the condition of the trailer was "totally unacceptable … whether we caused the accident or not."

U-Haul's larger trailers have surge brakes that activate when the trailer pushes against the vehicle in front. They are designed to reduce wear on the brakes of the tow vehicle and make it easier to stop the combination.

Safety experts say that once a trailer is swinging erratically, surge brakes won't help. But by reducing the trailer's speed, the brakes can help prevent swaying in the first place or limit it before it becomes severe, experts say.

"If you do try to slow down and you can't get adequate performance from the trailer brakes, it certainly would make it harder to get out of a sway situation," said Robert Krouse, a General Motors engineer who is chairman of a Society of Automotive Engineers panel on towing.

U-Haul says trailer brakes help with straight-ahead stopping but don't reduce sway. Nevertheless, the company says, they should always work.

The Times found recurring problems with U-Haul trailer brakes. As far back as 1966, U-Haul's own insurer told the company it needed to do a better job maintaining them.

"We are increasing the risk of an accident by sending a trailer with faulty brakes on a rental which we advertise and represent as being safely equipped with brakes," wrote Frontier Insurance Agency of Portland, Ore. The memo surfaced in a lawsuit years later.

A 1995 crash in Indiana drove home the potential consequences of brake failure. Two people were killed in the wreck, which police said was caused by inoperable brakes on a U-Haul auto transport.

Shoen said U-Haul recognized in the late 1990s that trailer brakes were not being maintained well enough and responded by requiring more frequent inspections.

In a statement, U-Haul said that despite isolated incidents, there was no "pervasive pattern" of brake failures.

Yet problems have persisted.

Architect Mark Letzer rented a U-Haul trailer in 2003 to move from Los Angeles to New Orleans. With his son, Devin, driving on Interstate 10 in Texas, the trailer whipped violently and their Honda Passport overturned.

The elder Letzer, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and killed.

The family's lawsuit said faulty trailer brakes helped cause the crash. The plaintiffs presented evidence that there was little or no brake fluid in the trailer and some brake pads were missing. The trailer had gone two months without a safety certification, according to its U-Haul inspection sticker. It had been rented nine times during that period.

U-Haul said brake problems didn't cause the accident. It blamed improper loading and said Devin Letzer drove too fast and braked and steered improperly when the trailer began to snake. His father contributed to the crash by grabbing the wheel, the company said.

U-Haul settled the suit in February 2006.

Eric Christensen, an engineer, was moving his family from Utah to New Hampshire in 2001, towing a trailer behind his Explorer. His father, Ronald V. Christensen, was riding with him.

On an icy patch of Interstate 80 in Wyoming, the trailer whipped and both vehicles slid off the road. Neither man was injured, and they forged on, intending to exchange the trailer for a new one at a U-Haul center 70 miles ahead.

Minutes later, coming down a steep grade, the trailer began swaying wildly. The Explorer overturned and rolled twice, killing Ronald Christensen.

The family sued, citing expert reports that the trailer's brake-fluid reservoir was dry. U-Haul records indicated that the trailer was more than a month overdue for a safety inspection.

U-Haul contended that the brakes were working at the time of the accident and lost fluid later, when a hose was damaged in the towing of the wreckage.

The company blamed Eric Christensen for driving too fast and braking and steering too sharply. U-Haul settled the suit on confidential terms.

"My son's growing up without his grandfather," Christensen said recently. "I have to face my mom and my brothers and sisters thinking I was responsible for my dad's death."

Lew Jones was moving furniture from North Carolina to Rochester, N.Y., in 2005 when he veered to avoid another car. Jones said his U-Haul trailer jackknifed, pushing his Jeep Cherokee into a guardrail. Jones' wife escaped with minor injuries; he was unhurt.

A Virginia state trooper found no fluid in the trailer's brake reservoir. Because state law holds the driver responsible, he gave Jones an $86 ticket for driving with defective brakes. Jones' auto insurer slapped him with a three-year, $846 surcharge.

U-Haul denied the wreck resulted from a brake problem but declined to elaborate.

Trooper Scott T. Parsons said the accident might not have happened if the trailer had working brakes. "There's a reason those brakes are on those trailers," he said, "and that's to help in control of the vehicle."


With some U-Haul trailers, the issue is not bad brakes but a lack of brakes.

Most states require surge brakes on larger trailers such as the model Sternberg rented. At least 14 states also mandate brakes on smaller trailers under common conditions. Yet U-Haul ignores this requirement, renting small and midsize trailers that have no brakes.

In general, the state regulations say that trailers below 3,000 pounds must have brakes if they exceed 40% of the tow vehicle's weight. By that standard, two popular, un-braked U-Haul cargo trailers are frequently in violation of the rules.

For instance, U-Haul's 5-by-8-foot trailer, which weighs 2,700 pounds fully loaded, would be required to have brakes unless the tow vehicle weighed at least 6,750 pounds. Only giant pickups weigh that much. U-Haul routinely rents the trailer to customers using much smaller tow vehicles.

Shoen acknowledged that U-Haul was not in compliance with the state motor vehicle codes but suggested it was a trifling matter. To make his point, he pulled out a news clipping about a 201-year-old North Carolina law barring unmarried couples from living together.

What's important, Shoen said, is that vehicles towing U-Haul equipment can stop within state-mandated braking distances.

"The laws you're referring to are well-known to people at the state jurisdictions," he said. "But what happens is they enforce, or don't enforce, depending upon what the public good is."


John Abromavage, U-Haul's engineering director, once testified that as a witness for the company in some 200 cases, he had never seen an accident he regarded as U-Haul's fault.

Richard Klein, the trailer expert and U-Haul consultant, said in an interview that "U-Haul trailers and tow dollies are the most highly tested equipment in the industry…. Sway is not a problem with a properly loaded and driven trailer."

Peter Keith, the Canadian safety expert, offered a similar appraisal based on investigating tow-dolly crashes for U-Haul: "These accidents never occur when a vehicle is being driven in anywhere close to the manner in which it's meant to be."

The fault, in U-Haul's view, nearly always lies with customers — for loading the trailer incorrectly, driving too fast or otherwise failing to heed safety instructions.

They should know better, according to U-Haul. Taub, the U-Haul attorney, said the company's safety guide is given out "virtually without exception."

But former U-Haul employees and dealers said many customers did not receive guides. Some said they were too busy to distribute them. Steve Eggen, a former dealer in Alameda, Calif., said he left the pamphlets on a counter, and at most half his customers picked one up.

Tammie Wise, a onetime dealer and U-Haul general manager in Northern California, said that with long lines of anxious customers and few employees, "there just wasn't enough time" to make sure everyone got a copy.

In addition, the guides are not available in Spanish, though many customers are Latino. Shoen said a Spanish-language guide was "a nice idea," but "we don't have a big demand for it."

Christian S. Strong said he and Mindy Swegels were never informed of the risks when they rented a trailer to tow his motorcycle.

Strong and Swegels, who had just become engaged, were returning to Kentucky from a Florida vacation in May 2002. On Interstate 75 in Tennessee, the trailer swerved and their Ford Explorer flipped.

Swegels, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered multiple fractures and a head injury that left her brain-damaged, according to her lawsuit. U-Haul blamed inattentive driving and excessive speed.

Swegels and Strong said that they never received the U-Haul user guide and that trailer decals citing a 45-mph speed limit were missing or illegible.

To bolster their case, their engineering experts rented 12 U-Haul trailers at various sites. They said they were given user guides only twice.

In February, the jury rejected the claim that the trailer was defective but found U-Haul negligent for failing to warn about the risks. It awarded nearly $2.6 million in damages.

Strong said that if he'd known about the dangers of towing above U-Haul's recommended 45-mph speed limit, he would have left his motorcycle behind.

"I'm not going to risk my life to take a bike 850 miles," he testified.

Even when clearly communicated, the 45-mph limit is problematic.

It's a challenge for anyone traveling cross-country or around California, since prevailing speeds are often at least 70 mph on interstates. Some experts say going 45 mph on a major highway is hazardous because it increases the chance of being hit from behind.

Shoen said the 45-mph ceiling was meant to "create a compensatory attitude." Customers may not go 45, but "maybe they'll go 55 or 60," he said.

Yet, when accidents happen, a standard U-Haul defense is that the driver exceeded the 45-mph limit.

Failing to properly distribute the load in the trailer is another customer error often cited by U-Haul. A company manual once called it "sheer suicide!"

The safety guide tells customers to put 60% of the weight in the trailer's front half to promote stability. The instruction is underscored by a line inside the trailer. The guide describes a series of measurements to make sure the weight is distributed correctly.

A portable scale that could help renters ensure proper loading has long been available. U-Haul has used such a scale during accident investigations, but it does not offer one to customers to help prevent accidents.

Sherline Products Inc. of Vista, Calif., sells a portable trailer scale to farmers, ranchers and owners of recreational vehicles for $110.

Craig Libuse, the company's marketing director, said executives wrote to U-Haul in the mid-1990s offering to design a version that could be built into U-Haul trailers. Another option was for U-Haul to rent scales to customers.

Sherline said the scale's wholesale cost would be $55.

Libuse said U-Haul never responded. U-Haul said it had no record of the proposal. The company said a scale was unnecessary because its loading instructions had proved sufficient.

"There's no mystery to loading a trailer," Shoen said. "You need it heavier in front. It's just that simple."


When Brian Sternberg arrived at the hospital in Albuquerque, he didn't recognize his daughter.

Marissa had suffered numerous fractures, as well as heart and lung damage and a severe head injury. The cumulative trauma caused brain damage that became evident soon after the accident.

By the time her father saw her, she could no longer speak or move. Physicians put the odds against her survival at 200 to 1.

But Marissa held on. She spent four weeks in the trauma unit of the University of New Mexico Hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in Austin, Texas. Her mother, Lisa, spent eight months with her there.

Marissa's first word was: "Home." Since then, she has spoken only an occasional word.

The Sternbergs, who have long been prominent in Tucson philanthropic circles, built an airy, art-filled house for their daughter next to their own home in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Four caregivers tend to her around the clock.

"I'm looking to make her comfortable," said Brian, 48, who owns a wholesale food company with his brother.

After discovering that the nearest neurological rehabilitation center was more than 100 miles away in Phoenix, the Sternbergs funded construction of a state-of-the-art facility in Tucson.

The center has 100 patients and a staff of 10. Marissa, now 23, receives therapy there five days a week. She has made progress, but doctors have told the family the most they can expect is that Marissa will learn to "follow commands," her father said. He called this "the best case, and the worst case."

"It's not like tomorrow's going to be a different day," he said. "It's a dream we just haven't woken up from, a nightmare."




Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.


Upkeep lags in U-Haul's aging fleet

Many trucks have high mileage, and The Times found safety checks were often overdue. Customers describe breakdowns and accidents.

The U-Haul truck was 19 years old, with nearly 234,000 miles on its odometer. It had a history of problems with its emergency brake and was overdue for a safety inspection.

Talmadge Waldrip, 73, of Forney, Texas, was using it to help his daughter move some belongings in September. He drove to a warehouse and killed the engine. Then he put the manual transmission in gear, set the emergency brake and stepped down from the cab, he told family members later.

Instantly, the truck rolled backward. Waldrip tried to climb back in, but the door knocked him to the pavement. The 6-ton truck rolled over his midsection and dragged him, crushing his pelvis.

Nine months and 14 surgeries later, the once-vigorous Waldrip cannot walk and needs round-the-clock care.

U-Haul International Inc. has denied responsibility and says it's still investigating the cause. Whatever the outcome, the accident shows how the company tries to squeeze the last mile from its vehicles, and how it often fails to meet its own standards for inspecting and maintaining them.

During a yearlong investigation, Times journalists surveyed more than 200 U-Haul trucks and trailers in California and other states and found that more than half were overdue for a company-mandated "safety certification," a check of brakes, tires and other parts typically required every 30 days.

Some safety checks were more than a year overdue.

In response, U-Haul said its fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles is safe and well-maintained. It said it is investing heavily to modernize the fleet and spends about $350 million a year — about 20% of its rental revenue — on maintenance and repairs.

U-Haul, the nation's largest do-it-yourself moving company, said its trucks are involved in fewer than four accidents per million miles — about the same as a federal estimate of the accident rate for all passenger vehicles. The company said the rate for its trailers is even lower.

U-Haul's figures could not be independently verified. No government agency keeps track of accidents involving rental equipment.

The company said its "performance record on the highways of North America says that we are succeeding."


Among U-Haul's 100,000 trucks are many aging, high-mileage vehicles. Many have logged more than 100,000 miles. A recent court filing by U-Haul underscored the fleet's age: A company executive, referring only to the type of truck rented to Waldrip, said 4,595 of them were still on the road with 200,000 miles or more.

U-Haul has purchased about 38,000 new trucks over the last two years and has sold nearly as many older ones. But the company says it does not automatically retire vehicles at a fixed mileage or age.

Penske Truck Leasing, one of U-Haul's two major competitors, says that it replaces up to half its consumer rental fleet every year and that its oldest trucks are about 3 1/2 years old. Budget Truck Rental says the average age of its trucks is 2 to 2 1/2 years.

U-Haul relies on a far-flung network of independent dealers to supplement its 1,450 company-owned rental centers. This has added to maintenance problems.

Most of the 14,500 dealers have no auto service background. They include storage sites, mini-marts, postal supply shops, even liquor stores and laundromats.

Further complicating matters is U-Haul's practice of booking reservations without knowing if it will have trucks and trailers when and where renters want them. The policy leads to long lines of overwrought customers, creating pressure to get equipment back on the road quickly.

Twenty-four former U-Haul employees, including some who collectively oversaw hundreds of rental locations in California and other states, said in separate interviews that basic safety checks were often skipped because of thin staffing and the need to keep trucks and trailers rolling.

U-Haul mechanics on occasion have falsified repair records, listing work they did not perform — a practice known as "hanging paper," court records and interviews show. U-Haul says this is rare and never tolerated.

The company faces little regulatory scrutiny in the U.S., but Canadian officials have sharply criticized its maintenance practices.

From July 2005 through August 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation inspected about 800 U-Haul trucks and removed 20% from service because of such problems as defective lights, steering and brakes.

The inspectors idled only about 4% of the trucks of other rental firms.

U-Haul said that some vehicles were sidelined for reasons unrelated to their condition, such as a driver lacking a proper license, and that its Canadian operation is safe. The company said it is improving its performance in Canada by adding new trucks, retraining employees and dropping errant dealers.

Ontario Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield said in an interview that U-Haul has a long way to go.

"The bottom line is, people are renting U-Hauls and they're not safe," she said.


The phase "Moving Made Easier" is emblazoned on U-Haul equipment, reflecting what chairman Edward J. "Joe" Shoen calls the company's "strong social purpose."

Customers "need to be dealt with just as fairly and kindly" as possible, Shoen said. "We have a culture of trying to do that. Does that mean it works every time? Of course it doesn't work every time. But it works in the vast majority of times."

Don't tell that to Art McCain.

McCain was concerned when he saw that the odometer in his U-Haul truck read 116,475 miles. But he had confidence in what he called "an internationally known brand," so he drove it onto Interstate 5 in July 2003 to move from El Dorado Hills, Calif., to Upland.

His faith faltered when the vehicle began vibrating. The rear "pitched violently to the left," recalled McCain, 44, a school guidance counselor. "I was able to wrestle the truck, with concerted effort, to the shoulder."

A mechanic dispatched to the scene by U-Haul found that lug nuts and studs were missing from two wheels. McCain said a highway patrol officer told him he was "the luckiest man in the world" not to have been seriously injured.

The truck was towed to a service station, where McCain waited 13 hours for repairs to be completed.

McCain said his anger boiled over when mechanics showed him that two of the truck's inside rear tires were so undersized that "they weren't even hitting the ground."

Asked for comment, U-Haul said the truck was checked and found safe before McCain drove it. The company said it could not explain what happened.

David Driscoll had a close call of his own.

The construction supervisor was moving from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2003. His U-Haul truck broke down in Missouri, and he spent two nights in motels waiting for repairs. He had reached California two days later when a front wheel flew off the truck near Blythe on Interstate 10.

"The wheel tumbled hundreds of yards into the desert as the truck went careening across the highway until it crashed into the side of the road," Driscoll wrote to U-Haul, adding that the wheel was missing a bolt, bearings and retainer pin. "This accident could have cost me or someone else their life."

Driscoll, who was not injured, said he hitchhiked 20 miles through a dust storm to reach a pay phone. He said he was unable to get assistance from U-Haul. Facing a night in the desert, Driscoll called a friend in Los Angeles who drove seven hours round-trip to rescue him.

U-Haul said mechanics made wheel and brake repairs to the truck shortly before Driscoll drove it. "It appears that the repair may have been faulty," the company said.

Driscoll received a partial refund from U-Haul, as did McCain. The Times learned of their experiences from complaints they filed with the Better Business Bureau.

The truck Cheryl Akers rented to move from Michigan to Arizona in 2002 suffered the equivalent of multiple organ failure.

There were transmission repairs in Oklahoma and exhaust problems in Texas, she said in an interview and in a consumer complaint to the bureau. Akers, her daughter and her 16-month-old granddaughter were stranded in New Mexico when the truck overheated. They got going again, only to have the brakes give out.

The travelers repeatedly found themselves marooned without enough food or water. Akers said her son-in-law eventually drove seven hours from Mesa, Ariz., to rescue the toddler. The next day, the truck overheated again outside Tucson.

Akers said a U-Haul representative declared the vehicle undrivable. Even then, she said, it took two days on the phone to get U-Haul to tow the family to their ultimate destination: Surprise, Ariz.

Instead of the four days she had planned, Akers was on the road for eight, with added hotel, meal and phone bills.

"It was a trip from hell," she said.

Akers recovered the full cost of her rental and some other expenses.

Breakdowns can have consequences beyond inconvenience and delay.

Dr. Omar Danner, his wife and three others were scattered like bowling pins when a big rig plowed into their crippled U-Haul truck during a 2001 move from Birmingham, Ala., to Baltimore.

It was the second defective U-Haul issued to the Danners, according to court records and interviews. The first truck rattled and shook so much that Danner said he went back for another.

The replacement truck had not gone far when smoke began pouring from under the hood. Danner pulled over to the side of Interstate 20 outside Birmingham. Danner; his wife, Jacqueline; two relatives; and a mechanic were in or near the U-Haul when the rig drifted onto the shoulder and rammed it.

More than six months pregnant, Jacqueline Danner suffered head injuries and severe knee damage. She later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

U-Haul blamed the "unfortunate incident" on the "driver of a tractor trailer who apparently fell asleep at the wheel." The company contributed to a multimillion-dollar settlement paid almost entirely by the truck driver's employer.


Talmadge Waldrip was behind the wheel of a U-Haul truck Sept. 20 because his daughter had gotten divorced and needed to move boxes of clothing, books and toys. She couldn't operate the truck's manual transmission, so Waldrip agreed to drive.

Rail-thin and always in motion, Waldrip had been a tax collector and assessor for a small town near Dallas. He later went into the antiques business and planned to move his daughter's belongings to a warehouse where he was opening an antique mart.

He drove off in the U-Haul. His daughter, Annabeth Boyd, drove separately and arrived at the warehouse about five minutes after he did.

In a deposition and in an interview with The Times, Boyd recalled finding her father lying beside the 26-foot truck, conscious but severely injured.

"I was just hysterical," she said. "I could tell his leg was mangled. I didn't want him to raise his head and see what I was seeing…. So I just kept asking him, what's going on, what happened, and are you OK? And he said, 'Could you please call 911?' I said, 'Daddy, I already have.' "

Along with a crushed pelvis, Waldrip suffered a ruptured bladder and fractured vertebrae and had chunks of flesh torn from his right leg. He has been hospitalized for all but nine days since the accident. He can't walk and has more than $1 million in medical bills, his daughter said.

The family has sued U-Haul, contending that the 19-year-old vehicle was "in a callous state of disrepair." The case is awaiting trial.

U-Haul repair records filed in court show that the truck's parking brake had malfunctioned repeatedly in the four years before the accident.

"Park brake wasn't hold," reads an entry dated April 14, 2003. Two months later, an employee wrote: "Parking Brake Will Not Hold."

Each time, mechanics made repairs, but the problem persisted. According to the records, the parking brake had to be adjusted again in October 2005 at 229,849 miles — just 4,000 miles before Waldrip drove the truck.

About two weeks before the accident, his grandson, Jonathan Simington, used the same vehicle to move furniture and antiques for his grandfather and had a nerve-jangling experience.

In a deposition in March, Simington, 24, testified that he had trouble shifting the truck into first gear and that the side mirror was "flapping around."

Simington said that when he stopped the truck and set the emergency brake, it rolled downhill about 80 feet before he could stop it. After that, he said, he wedged a concrete block behind one of the wheels whenever he parked on an incline.

He said he told the U-Haul dealer about the problem but wasn't sure the dealer heard him.

U-Haul has denied responsibility for the accident and said in court papers that there was no evidence it was "aware or should have been aware" of any problems with the emergency brake.

Boyd said her father was too sick to be interviewed. She described him as emotionally devastated by the accident.

"He was a man that could not sit still for a minute. He needed to be busy all the time," she said. "Now he feels helpless. Everybody has to do everything for him, and that's not who he was his entire life."


Every truck or trailer that rolls off a U-Haul lot is supposed to bear evidence of a recent safety check. Many do not.

Company policy calls for trailers to undergo a "safety certification" at least once every 30 days. The same applies to trucks picked up and dropped off at the same location. Trucks rented for one-way trips are supposed to be certified at least once every 60 days.

In internal documents and court testimony, U-Haul has described the system as a cornerstone of its maintenance program. An employee manual called it "the essential foundation for performing all other safety inspections."

In a safety certification, U-Haul agents check brakes, tires and other key components. Then they are supposed to affix a sticker to the equipment that shows the month, week and year of the inspection.

The truck Waldrip rented was more than a month overdue for a certification. The Times survey found similar problems on a bigger scale.

Combing residential streets, parking lots and highway rest areas for U-Hauls, Times staffers checked the safety certifications on 207 trucks and trailers in January and February.

Most of the vehicles were in Southern California; others were in Maryland, Georgia, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

About half the trucks and more than three-fourths of the trailers were overdue for safety certifications, according to the stickers. One-fifth of the vehicles had not had these inspections in at least six months.

They included a truck on a Northridge street with a sticker showing it was last certified in November 2005; a trailer parked at a McLean, Va., town house complex that was last inspected in June 2006; and a truck parked at an Ikea store in Atlanta that was last certified in April 2006.

It was unclear whether the trucks were rented for local use or one-way trips, so U-Haul was given the benefit of the doubt: Trucks were considered to be in compliance if they had been certified within the preceding 60 days. Even by that standard, 80 of 163 trucks — 49% — were overdue.

U-Haul's trailers fared especially poorly. Only seven of 44, or 16%, bore evidence that they had been certified in the previous 30 days. Twelve had not been certified in at least six months, according to their stickers. Sixteen had no stickers at all.

In response to The Times' findings, U-Haul said that in some cases, stickers may have fallen off or agents may have checked equipment but failed to attach a sticker.

Former U-Haul employees, however, said the opposite sometimes happened: They would apply and mark stickers without having completed an inspection. U-Haul said such sources were not reliable.

The company also downplayed the importance of safety certification, describing it as only one of several overlapping procedures designed to keep equipment running well.

For instance, U-Haul requires agents to do a "receive and dispatch" check when equipment is returned. Customers are asked whether they had problems, and agents are supposed to examine essential features such as lights and tires.

Trucks are also supposed to have preventive maintenance, including inspection of the brakes, transmission and suspension, at intervals of 5,000, 15,000 and 30,000 miles.

Finally, trucks must be inspected once a year to ensure they meet U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements. U-Haul mechanics or private garages perform these inspections.

Dave Adams, a longtime senior U-Haul manager in the Bay Area who quit after a 2002 demotion, said routine maintenance procedures such as "receive and dispatch" checks and safety certifications were "a heck of a good-looking program on paper.'"

He said the reality was different. "More often than not, when the equipment did arrive, it was not safety-checked."

" 'Sprinkle holy water on it' was the expression," Adams said. "It's truly a matter of people just not having the time and resources to get it done."

Ed O'Toole, a former longtime U-Haul executive in Northern California, said: "Safety was a big, big concern of the organization. It's not cost-effective for them to have a piece of equipment that breaks down."

But he acknowledged that in the rush to provide trucks and trailers to customers, "there were probably pieces of equipment that got rented out that shouldn't have been."

U-Haul strives to keep costs low so it won't lose business to rivals and so people will rent equipment rather than borrow it from friends or family. One result is modest paychecks, tight staffing and high turnover.

"U-Haul's turnover was just outrageous," said Jim Buell, a former senior executive who supervised operations in California and three other states until 2004.

"You couldn't possibly keep people trained. You've got employees who don't even know how to find the dipstick under the hood of a truck and they're being asked to do a full safety certification."

In 2005 testimony, U-Haul official Russell Johnson said a training program for trailer mechanics had to be canceled because too many trainees were leaving the company.

U-Haul said that average employee tenure is about five years and that turnover is not a problem.

Ryan Keefer, 22, who said he earned about $7.50 an hour working at a company-owned U-Haul center in Poway in San Diego County in 2003 and 2004, described the place as "extremely understaffed."

"Working under conditions like these would often cause me to question whether I hooked the trailer up right due to a lack of proper training, or it would cause me to rush through certain jobs because of the pressure of constant waiting customers," Keefer said in a posting on a Web forum.

"After a month at the job and barely knowing what I'm doing, I already had seniority and was training people."

In an interview, Keefer said employees at the center routinely skipped safety checks before renting equipment and put on certification stickers without doing inspections.

He recalled an angry customer whose trailer had decoupled and damaged his rear bumper. The hook-up had been done by a brand-new employee.

"He didn't know what he was doing," Keefer said.

Tammie Wise, a former U-Haul center general manager in the East Bay and a onetime U-Haul dealer, said that at the busiest times, "it hardly ever happened that trucks got checked."

"There was no time to check the tires or anything like that," she said. "We would at least clean it so it looked presentable."


Lee Taylor, a U-Haul shop foreman, rented a company truck to move in 2001. His friend and co-worker, Johnny Williams, was driving the truck when he rear-ended Taylor's pickup.

Taylor suffered shoulder, back and neck injuries and sued U-Haul, contending that the truck's brakes failed.

Two mechanics testified that while working on the truck, they documented brake maintenance that they hadn't done. One of the mechanics called this "hanging paper" and said it was "the only way we'll keep our job."

U-Haul mechanics are rated on efficiency, with time limits for specific tasks. Missing targets can lead to dismissal, so the pressure to perform can be intense.

U-Haul blamed Williams for the crash. But a jury found U-Haul liable and awarded Taylor $1.5 million in compensatory damages. Before the jury could decide on punitive damages, U-Haul reached a confidential settlement of the entire case.

Steve Taub, U-Haul's assistant general counsel, described "hanging paper" as "clearly an unacceptable practice," but said the testimony in Taylor's case represented "a single and isolated allegation."

It was not the only time such allegations have surfaced, however.

Bonita Michelle Moss was killed in Atlanta in 1999 when another vehicle pushed her car into the path of a U-Haul truck. The driver of the U-Haul hit the brakes but couldn't stop in time.

Moss' son and niece were also killed, and a nephew was seriously injured. Moss was 8 1/2 months pregnant; her baby was delivered but suffered brain damage and died 3 1/2 years later.

Moss' family sued U-Haul, contending that the truck's power brakes weren't working and that maintenance records showed recurring brake problems.

U-Haul denied responsibility for the accident. It said the 1989 truck, which had been driven 131,000 miles, would have had adequate braking power even if the power brakes had failed.

Edward Hicks, a former U-Haul mechanic in Atlanta, testified for the plaintiffs that maintenance of the company's trucks was "quite poor." Hicks said his name had been forged several times on repair records to make it appear he had performed work when he hadn't.

Hicks, who left U-Haul in 1999 in a dispute over a medical leave, said it was common for mechanics to falsify repair records.

"We would get the truck and find out nobody touched the brakes," he said. "Or they said that they replaced this or that. And it wasn't done."

Without admitting liability, U-Haul settled the Moss suit in 2004 for an undisclosed sum.

Four former U-Haul mechanics, each with at least 10 years' tenure, told The Times that mechanics "hung paper" to maintain efficiency ratings. Some said this was especially common with older trucks that can require time-consuming repairs.

"I would never rent a U-Haul truck," said David Esquivel Jr., who was a U-Haul mechanic in Fremont, Calif., before being fired under disputed circumstances during a union organizing campaign in 2004. "It's not dependable."

Darryl Stasher, formerly a top U-Haul executive in Mississippi, said he was accused of "hanging paper" when the company fired him in 2001. Stasher, who worked for U-Haul more than 17 years, said that the charge was a pretext in his case, but that the practice was rampant.

"They set standards and guidelines that, in reality, they knew were not happening," he said. "All these trucks were breaking down the day after they were rented, and after they said maintenance had been performed."


Only about a third of U-Haul's independent dealers are automotive businesses like gas stations and repair shops. Many others aren't equipped to fill a tire. Their equipment is maintained by U-Haul field personnel or sent to company-owned repair shops.

But the dealers have responsibility for making sure rental equipment is safe. They are supposed to perform the "receive and dispatch" inspections and be able to safely hook trailers to customers' vehicles, among other duties. U-Haul depends on them to call safety problems to its attention.

U-Haul's reliance on this network has undermined vehicle maintenance and customer service, former employees say.

"They wanted so many dealers," said Buell, the former senior executive. "They didn't care if it was a convenience store, a nail salon or a liquor store."

Buell said he was fired after 19 years with the company for keeping inactive "paper dealers" on the books — a practice he said was pervasive to support the company's claim to have more than 15,000 rental locations.

U-Haul said it was not aware of such a practice.

Under Shoen's leadership, U-Haul has grown from 4,600 outlets in 1987 to nearly 16,000.

Shoen said expansion of the dealer network has not impaired service or safety. Many dealers have deep roots in their communities and an abiding concern for their customers, he said.

Unlike people who buy a franchise, dealers don't invest to become part of U-Haul, which for most is a small side business. They make their money from commissions on each rental.

Jeff Rodriguez, who runs a plumbing and storage business in Freedom, Calif., said he quit last year after 18 months as a U-Haul dealer because there were too many headaches. He complained about getting no training and about irate customers arriving with reservations he wasn't told about and couldn't fill.

"Nobody showed up to tell us anything," Rodriguez said. "And nobody over the phone knew anything."

Steve Eggen, co-owner of an Alameda party supply company that was a U-Haul dealer for 31 years, said equipment would sit idle on his lot for weeks at a time because U-Haul personnel were too busy to fix it or get it to a company-owned repair shop.

"Sometimes we became a parking lot for downed trucks," he said.

In 2005, Eggen and his brother had had enough. They switched to Budget.


Brian Martin booked a truck weeks in advance to move from Tehachapi to Salt Lake City last Labor Day weekend. A day before the move, the 33-year-old chiropractor learned from U-Haul that he'd have to pick the truck up in Ridgecrest, 74 miles away.

He had barely turned the key when the truck's "check engine" light and a warning beep turned his annoyance to alarm.

He said the dealer told him not to worry — the truck had just been serviced and he could crank up the radio to drown out the beeping. When Martin complained that the air conditioning didn't work, the dealer said there was no one there to fix it.

With the temperature above 100 degrees, Martin drove into the Mojave Desert on California 178. After about 10 miles, the truck blew a hose. Amid billowing smoke and steam, Martin eased the truck out of traffic with a highway patrolman's help.

He eventually made it to Salt Lake City in a newer truck provided by another U-Haul dealer.

U-Haul said the engine in Martin's truck was destroyed by the heat and his bad experience resulted, in part, from renting "in a rural area on the busiest moving week of the year."

U-Haul had unusual advice for Jenifer R. McCormick as she struggled with a balky truck in Tennessee: "Avoid hills."

She and her husband waited hours for the truck they had reserved to move from Texas to Washington, D.C., in 2004. That turned out to be the least of their problems.

First, the truck's alternator belt gave out, requiring an emergency repair on the shoulder of the interstate. Back on the road at 2 a.m., the couple discovered the power brakes and steering were gone.

They limped into Memphis and waited nearly a day for more repairs. Later in the trip, a mechanic told them the truck was out of engine coolant and motor oil.

It was on a call to U-Haul's emergency help line that McCormick said she was given the impossible advice to avoid hills in mountainous Tennessee.

When she arrived days late in Washington and complained to U-Haul, she said she was told that reaching her destination should be "good enough." Later, she got a partial refund.

"This company is the most miserable company I have ever had the misfortune of being involved with," McCormick said in a letter to the Texas attorney general's office. "Their business practices are despicable in almost every respect. I feel very sorry for their employees who must withstand irate customers at every turn."



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