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Charlie Thomas Chevrolet, Ltd v. Martinez

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

August 8, 2019

CHARLIE THOMAS CHEVROLET, LTD D/B/A CHAMPION CHEVROLET GULF FREEWAY, Appellant
v.
GENARO MARTINEZ, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 164th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2012-27666

          Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Kelly, and Hightower.

          OPINION

          RICHARD HIGHTOWER JUSTICE

         Genaro Martinez sued Charlie Thomas Chevrolet, LTD d/b/a Champion Chevrolet Gulf Freeway for instigation of false imprisonment and for violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). Martinez had acquired a new pickup truck from Champion Chevrolet and a few weeks later was briefly detained by police when paperwork mistakes by Champion Chevrolet led it to believe that Martinez's truck had been stolen from Champion Chevrolet.

         At trial, a jury found Champion Chevrolet liable for instigation of false imprisonment and for DTPA violations and awarded Martinez $25, 500 in actual damages, $75, 000 in additional damages, and $21, 900 for attorney's fees through trial, along with conditional attorney's fees on appeal. The jury also found Martinez to have been negligent and 15% responsible. Martinez elected to recover on his DTPA claim, and the trial court entered judgment for Martinez on his damages (reduced by 15%) and for attorney's fees.

         Asserting one issue with numerous sub-issues, Champion Chevrolet argues that the judgment on the DTPA claims must be reversed and that judgment should not have been rendered for instigation of false imprisonment. We reverse the judgment and render judgment that Martinez take nothing on his DTPA claims. We remand the case to the trial court for consideration of the jury's alternative finding that Champion Chevrolet instigated the false imprisonment of Martinez.

         Background

         In November 2011, Martinez went to Champion Chevrolet, a former Houston auto dealership, to buy a new truck. He dealt with salesman Lupe Garcia. They attempted to complete deals on two used trucks, but Martinez had poor credit and could not obtain financing on either of them. Seeking a solution, Garcia suggested that Martinez find a co-signer, so Martinez left and later returned with his co-worker Andrew Cisneros, who was to be his co-signer.

         Martinez test drove both a new black and a new white Chevrolet Silverado truck and selected the black one. Garcia then completed the Retail Purchase Agreement for the sale of the black Silverado, but to get around Martinez's poor credit, the agreement was made between Champion Chevrolet and Cisneros, rather than with Martinez. Garcia was aware, however, that Martinez would be using the truck following its purchase by Cisneros.

         In filling out the Retail Purchase Agreement, Garcia made a critical error. Although Martinez had selected the black Silverado, Garcia erroneously filled in the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for the white Silverado that Martinez had also test-driven. Garcia also erroneously indicated in the agreement that the white Silverado was being purchased, rather than the black one. This error resulted in Champion Chevrolet's records reflecting that the white Silverado had been sold and was no longer in the dealership's inventory and that the black Silverado Martinez had driven off the lot was still in the inventory. Martinez was given a copy of the Retail Purchase Agreement signed by Cisneros but did not notice that it erroneously referenced the white Silverado.

         A couple of weeks after the sale, Champion Chevrolet performed its monthly inventory reconciliation. During that process, it discovered that the black Silverado was not on the lot and became concerned that it was missing and possibly stolen. After learning that the black Silverado was missing, General Sales Manager Tania Eubanks asked an employee to look for it on the lot. After that search was unsuccessful, Eubanks obtained the "key report" for the black Silverado, and it showed that the salesman Garcia was the last person in possession of the black Silverado's keys.

         After Champion Chevrolet management learned that Garcia had shown the black Silverado to Martinez, Garcia was asked to call Martinez to make sure that he was not in the incorrect vehicle. Garcia was asked to have Martinez read to him the VIN off the body of the vehicle and to make sure the Retail Purchase Agreement was for the correct vehicle.

         Garcia first called Cisneros, who unsurprisingly did not have the black Silverado, and then Martinez. Garcia told Martinez that the dealership was missing a vehicle. He then asked Martinez to go outside and read to him the VIN off the body of the truck. Martinez replied that it was dark outside and instead read to Garcia the VIN on his copy of the Retail Purchase Agreement, which was of course identical to the VIN on Garcia's copy. Because the VIN read by Martinez matched the VIN on Garcia's copy of the Retail Purchase Agreement, the VIN mix-up was not discovered. This conversation reinforced the dealership's belief that Martinez did not have the black Silverado.

         Martinez disputed Garcia's version of that phone call. He testified that Garcia called him one night and told him that he needed the VIN on the truck. Martinez told him that he had the paperwork, that it was cold and he was not going outside at that time, and that he read to Garcia the VIN off of the paperwork. Martinez then asked Garcia if everything was all right, and Garcia told him not to worry about it and to enjoy his truck. Champion Chevrolet did not go to Martinez's residence to inspect the VIN, ask Martinez to bring his truck to the dealership for inspection, or even ask him what color his truck was.

         Champion Chevrolet continued its efforts to locate the missing black Silverado, searching its body shop and "make ready" area. Finally, it called Onstar, which the vehicle was equipped with, and requested that Onstar locate the truck electronically.[1] Onstar would not activate its location system unless the police were notified that the truck had been stolen, so Champion Chevrolet called the police and reported the black Silverado as stolen.

         Houston Police Department records reflect that Champion Chevrolet called to report that the black Silverado was stolen. Under the report section entitled "Details of Offense," the report states: "Complainant's vehicle was stolen. Complainant will prosecute. No suspect. No arrest." The report did not mention Martinez at all, including as a suspect.

         In response to the report, Officer G. Olvera was dispatched. Officer Olvera testified that the call to the police "dropped as a tracked vehicle," which meant that someone (in this case Onstar) was tracking it. He was in the area and went to the location that Onstar had electronically fixed for the truck and had provided to police. That location was the apartment complex where Martinez lived. By that time, Onstar had remotely deactivated the truck. Officer Olvera parked and watched the truck, and when its headlights came on, he called for backup, approached the truck, and found Martinez with it.

         Officer Olvera testified that, before the event, no one from Champion Chevrolet had told him that Martinez was a thief or had stolen the truck and that Champion Chevrolet never requested that he target or arrest Martinez. Officer Olvera did not know that Martinez was going to be there when he arrived at the address where the truck had been located.

         Officer Olvera testified that the police announced themselves to Martinez and, as part of normal police procedure, handcuffed him and told him that he was being detained for questioning because they were tracking a possibly stolen vehicle. Officer Olvera could not remember if he or any other officer drew their weapons when they approached Martinez, but he said that if they did, it would have been proper police procedure for the investigation of a stolen vehicle.

         Martinez testified that shortly before he was detained by the police, he had gotten into his truck to pick up some food for his family for dinner, but his truck would not start-unknown to him, it had been disabled by Onstar. Martinez called Champion Chevrolet because he thought there was something wrong with his truck, and he was told to get his other key and try to start it again. Martinez went back into his home to get his other key, and when he returned to the truck to attempt to start it again, police were ...


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