Judge tosses woman’s false arrest suit against Geico

Geico assigned an investigator to track the car down but was unable to locate it, so the investigator reported the car stolen. (Photo: iStock)
A federal judge dismissed a false arrest complaint a woman filed against Geico Insurance after she was jailed on charges of concealing her wrecked 1988 Mercury Tracer she was supposed to turn over after the insurer paid $1,108 for it.

“This was just a mess of a case,” said attorney Craig Terrett of Norcross-based Cruser, Mitchell, Novitz, Sanchez, Gaston & Zimet, who defended the case with partner J. Robb Cruser. “This was definitely the right result.”

The plaintiffs attorney, Lawrenceville solo Talal “Perez” Ghosheh, was not available for comment.

Traffic accident in 2012

According to Terrett and court filings, Rosinda Matute-Castellanos’ Tracer was struck by a vehicle driven by Elmo Watkins in March 2012. Watkins was cited for failure to obey a traffic control device, and Geico paid $1,108 to cover the then-24-year-old compact car the following April.

The complaint filed in Georgia’s DeKalb State Court in 2016 said Geico was supposed to have the car picked up at Matute-Castellanos’ residence, an apartment on Henderson Mill Road in northeast Atlanta. Geico’s agent did not pick it up in a “timely manner,” and Matute-Castellanos’s landlord said it would be towed if she didn’t move it.

She moved the car to a parking lot at a Kroger shopping center on Chamblee-Tucker Road and had Ghosheh tell Geico where to pick it up. Someone “is believed” to have picked it up.

Geico investigator unable to find vehicle

Geico assigned an investigator to track the Tracer down, and Matute-Castellanos “through her counsel, worked diligently to find the vehicle” but was unable to do so; she reported the car stolen to the DeKalb County Police Department.

Geico, her complaint said, stopped communicating with Ghosheh and filed a complaint with the Chamblee Police Department accusing her of “concealment of property with security lien.”

In March 2014, Matute-Castellanos was arrested “in front of her children” and taken to jail.

Terrett said he wasn’t sure how long she remained in jail, “but it couldn’t have been more than several hours.”

The DeKalb County Solicitor’s office declined to prosecute the case following month, and the charges were dropped.

Claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution, negligence

In 2016, Matute-Castellanos sued Geico Indemnity Co. for claims including false arrest and malicious prosecution, as well as negligent hiring, training and supervision.

Geico, which had the case removed to Georgia’s Northern District Court, had a substantially different account. The insurer argued in its motion seeking summary judgment that an agent with Insurance Auto Auctions made three attempts to retrieve the car, which was never at the apartment complex as promised. Matute-Castellanos refused to speak to the man during the last attempt, Geico said.

Related: How Geico managed to overturn a $30M insurance bad faith award — for now

Geico assigned investigator Mike Mitchell to the case, but he was also unsuccessful in finding the car, according to the brief. Ghosheh’s assistant told Mitchell it was moved to the Kroger lot and subsequently reported it stolen, but the Kroger manager said there was no record of the vehicle being towed.

Sold car & reported it stolen?

The investigator filed an incident report and statement with Chamblee police, where Detective Chris Newberry’s investigation led him to suspect Matute-Castellanos sold the car and reported it stolen, and had a magistrate issue an arrest warrant.

The defense pleading said the criminal charges were dismissed on statute of limitation grounds.

In dismissing the suit, Judge Thomas Thrash wrote that “false arrest and malicious prosecution are separate causes of action, but they both have similar elements,” including that either claim must be supported by evidence of malicious intent.

Lack of malicous intent

“The plaintiff has completely failed to do so here,” he wrote, noting that Geico’s investigator “never knew the plaintiff personally and, in fact, never had the opportunity to meet her or communicate with the plaintiff at all, despite his best efforts to do so.”

Mitchell, wrote Thrash, “contacted the police solely because of the results of his investigation, not because of any personal hostility.”

Further, he noted, “there is no dispute that Detective Newberry’s decision to arrest the plaintiff was based on Newberry’s own independent investigation.”

As to the claims for negligent hiring, training and supervision, Thrash wrote there is “no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there have been any previous incidents similar to those alleged in this case. Nor has the plaintiff produced any evidence showing that Geico knew or should have known such incidents occurred, even if they did.”

Greg Land is a reporter for the Daily Report and Texas Lawyer, ALM Media properties. He can be reached at gland@alm.com.

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