Tuesday, January 20, 2004
C.A.: Suit Against U-Haul Over Reservations Was Not SLAPP
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Santa Cruz Superior Court judge properly rejected a contention by U-Haul Co. of California Inc. that a suit challenging its reservations system should be dismissed on free speech grounds, the Sixth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an unpublished opinion made public Friday, the court said Judge Richard McAdams, who has since been elevated to the Sixth District, was correct to deny U-Haul’s motion to strike Alan Rosenberg’s complaint as a strategic lawsuit against public participation under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16. Rosenberg’s suit alleged that the company violated consumer protection laws by failing to disclose in its advertising that reserving equipment—for which the company charged a nonrefundable fee—did not guarantee availability.
Rosenberg’s class action claimed U-Haul’s Yellow Pages advertising, stating “Make your reservation – CALL TODAY!” was misleading. When he called about renting a trailer in 2001, he asserted, he was charged $5 to make the reservation, yet when he called back on the day of the reservation he was informed no trailer was available.
U-Haul also charged him a $50 cancellation fee when he made arrangements to rent the equipment he needed elsewhere, he claimed.
Writing for the appeals court, Justice Nathan D. Mihara said U-Haul failed to establish that its protected speech rights were implicated by Rosenberg’s suit.
“At issue here is whether U-Haul’s statements were made in connection with an issue of public interest,” the justice declared. “U-Haul points to the complaint, which alleges that U-Haul’s advertising activities affect the public at large and their ability to move their households. Thus, U-Haul contends that its claims about reservations impact a broad segment of society.”
Not so, Mihara rejoined, citing Consumer Justice Center v. Trimedica International, Inc. (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 595.
Though equipment reservations systems, like the herbal remedies that came before the court in Consumer Justice, may be in general a matter of public interest, Mihara said, Rosenberg’s suit challenged only U-Haul’s specific system.
“As in Consumer Justice, here the topic of reservations is not a matter of public interest,” he wrote.
U-Haul’s argument that its advertising was a matter of public interest because it reached the general public was also unavailing, the justice said, adding that even if U-Haul could have surmounted that hurdle, McAdams’ ruling would still have been correct since Rosenberg showed he was likely to prevail on his claim.
“Here U-Haul represented on its Web site and in the Yellow Pages that a consumer could make reservations to rent equipment. The declarations that were submitted in opposition to the motion to strike showed that various consumers made reservations to rent equipment from U-Haul and that these reservations were not honored.…When the declarations are considered together, Rosenberg has made a prima facie showing that U-Haul did not intend to supply reasonably expectable demand. U-Haul also contends that there is no proof of any advertising by U-Haul. This contention is meritless. Rosenberg’s declaration refers to advertising in the Yellow Pages and two of the declarations refer to making reservations online and the Web site advertises reservations. Thus, Rosenberg has shown a probability that he will prevail on this claim.”
The case is Rosenberg v. U-Haul Co. of California, Inc., H025381.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company