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Geico: We agreed to pay $20,000 to families of kids who died in a stolen SUV to 'protect' our client

Ricky Melendez outside of his apartment in Clearwater earlier this week. Melendez was the driver who was hurt in a fiery crash when a stolen Ford Explorer carrying four teens slammed into his car a couple months ago. He has several broken bones, but is expected to fully recover. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Oct. 14, 2017

Geico says it was only trying to protect a Clearwater man when it agreed to pay out his $20,000 policy to the families of four teenage boys who hit him with a stolen SUV.

When the news about the payment broke earlier this week, Geico drew outrage for not standing up for its client, Ricky Melendez, 29, who authorities said hadn't done anything wrong.

Melendez said he felt betrayed by his insurer after, according to his lawyer, it agreed to pay the families of three boys who died in the crash and another who survived.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Outrage over Geico paying out insurance claim.

"It hurts," Melendez said Monday. "I honestly feel like I was involved in another car crash emotionally."

But now the company is defending itself, saying it was just defending him.

"Our actions were taken to protect Mr. Melendez regardless of the fact that we personally do not believe that he shared any responsibility for this accident," Geico said in a statement late Thursday. "We also made certain that no record of liability was placed against him that would cause his rates to change due to this terrible incident."

HOT WHEELS: Kids are driving Pinellas County's car-theft epidemic. It's a dangerous — sometimes deadly — game.

The insurance company explained in its statement that it sought to pay out the policy to help cut down on the chances of anyone suing Melendez. In many states, according to Geico, people are only susceptible to an insurance claim if they are equally or more at fault than another party in a crash.

But "Florida allows an injured party to make a claim against another driver in an accident, even if that other driver had only one percent of fault for the accident," Geico said. "This has left the door open for lawsuits against consumers in Florida, who most would agree did not cause the accident."

Lawyers said that if Geico were to have opted not to pay the families of the boys, Melendez could have been sued at a later date for a lot more than $20,000. Then, he could have sued Geico for bad faith, potentially extracting millions from the insurer.

"Our responsibility in this terrible event is to protect our policyholder, Mr. Melendez, from claims that others may attempt to assert against him, whether those claims are true or not," Geico said. "We did that."

It remains unclear who, if anyone, filed the claim. Melendez's layer, Mark Roman, said it looks increasingly likely that Geico reached out to the families to settle the case before the families even took any action.

"I think it's quite possible that there was never a claim made at all," said Roman, of the firm Roman & Gaynor. "I don't think there's a lawyer in Florida who would have ever pursued a claim against Ricky."

If anyone had attempted to sue Melendez, Roman said, "they would have been laughed out of court."

"If they sought out these people to write them checks, it is astonishing, but I would say typical of the way Geico and the way all of these insurance companies act and the way they handle claims," Roman said. "They don't care about what their policyholders think, about their feelings."

If the boy's families collect Geico's money, Roman said he plans to file a personal injury claim against them in probate court to get the payout back for Melendez.

Though Geico made assurances that the claim would not go against Melendez's record, Roman said he wasn't convinced and worried that when his client switches coverage, another insurance company will not know the details of the situation.

"You think Ricky is going to want to continue being a Geico insured? No way," Roman said.

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

Melendez was on his way to work at a grocery store about 4 a.m. on Aug. 6 when he was blindsided by the stolen Ford Explorer at the intersection of Tampa Road and U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. Authorities said 16-year-old Keontae Brown was driving the SUV and had turned off all its lights, blasting through the intersection at 112 mph. Inside the car were his brother, Keondrae, 14; and friends Jimmie Goshey, 14; and Dejarae Thomas, 16. Only Keondrae survived.

On Monday, relatives of the boys declined to comment or could not be reached.

Melendez suffered broken bones and required ankle surgery. He still walks with crutches and spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. He has not returned to work.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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