Sunday, December 10, 2017
Public safety

He was hit by teens in a stolen car crash. Now his insurance is paying their families.

Ricky Melendez was on his way to work at a grocery store when a 16-year-old driving a stolen sport utility vehicle ran a red light and smashed into his Toyota Camry at 112 mph.

The driver and two other teenage boys in the SUV died; another was thrown through the windshield but survived. Investigators said unequivocally that Melendez had done nothing wrong.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Teens in stolen car crash had 126 arrests; murder charges possible (Aug. 7, 2017)

Despite that, Melendez's car insurance provider, Geico, agreed to pay out a total of $20,000 to the families of the boys on Monday, his lawyer said.

The 29-year-old feels blindsided once again.

"It hurts. I honestly feel like I was involved in another car crash emotionally, just betrayed," said Melendez, who more than two months later still uses crutches and wears a cast on his wrist. "It's very disheartening that a company you pay monthly to pretty much have your back is just stabbing you in the back."

Melendez's lawyer, Mark Roman, said the boys in the SUV were solely to blame for the Aug. 6 crash, but Geico is paying their families anyway. He called the insurance company's decision "appalling" and said Geico does not care about his client's well-being.

"It's a disgusting and shocking development," Roman said. "This poor guy was driving to work at a grocery store when his life was changed forever by horrible criminal acts."


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Neither Geico nor the company's lawyer in Pasco County responded to requests for comment.

It's an outcome that lawyers describe as unfair but unsurprising. For Geico, $20,000 — the maximum coverage under Melendez's policy — is a small amount to protect itself against a possible lawsuit.

Court costs can rack up quickly, even in frivolous cases, said Tarpon Springs lawyer Gerasimos 'Jerry' Theophilopoulos, who is not involved in the case. Also, if investigators later found that Melendez was even slightly at fault in the crash, the boys' families could sue for wrongful death, he said. Such a case might result in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in payments.

"They're just paying it to get out from under it," he said. "Damages are serious when you have a death of young kids at the ages they were."

The insurance company shouldn't raise Melendez's rates, he added, but it might.

"If there's no fault attributed to him, they don't have to raise them, period," Theophilopoulos said. "But do they routinely attempt to do it? Yes."

If that happens, Roman vowed to report the charge to state regulators. He said he is looking at possible lawsuits against "any and all responsible parties" in the collision.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Victim recalls horrific crash that killed three in stolen car (Aug. 7, 2017)

The boys who died were Jimmie Goshey, 14; Dejarae Thomas, 16; and the suspected driver, Keontae Brown, 16. Keontae's 14-year-old brother, Keondrae, was the only survivor from the stolen Ford Explorer. He was later charged with grand theft auto.

Authorities said the boys had spent the early morning hours breaking into cars and joyriding. The Explorer eventually blew through the red light at U.S. 19, striking Melendez, who was driving north toward Sprouts Farmers Market, where he worked as a dairy manager.

It wasn't clear Tuesday who filed the original insurance claim against Melendez. No court records had been filed yet. Outside the office building where the mediation took place on Monday, Jimmie's mother, Shalanda Marshall, declined to comment. She got in a car with three other people and left.

Keontae and Keondrae's parents or guardians were also listed in a letter sent from Geico's law firm to Melendez. They could not be reached for comment.

Dejarae's sister declined to comment in an email.

 

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: THREE BOYS DIE IN STOLEN VEHICLE

Sheriff releases video showing teens reaching 140 mph before fatal Palm Harbor SUV crash

TIMELINE: Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)


Since the crash, Melendez has focused on rehab and physical therapy. He said he has spent most of the last two months in a wheelchair.

The money he received from his personal injury protection coverage with Geico, about $10,000, has gone to his medical bills, which he said are "well into the six figures." His car was totaled.

This week, Melendez said, he will go to the doctor's for a final X-ray on his broken collarbone. In a month or two, he hopes to go back to work.

"I'm just trying to heal," he said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

 
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