The US Department of Justice is deploying all of its legal muscle to avoid paying the price after an FBI agent destroyed an exotic car during a joy ride. After nearly two years of trying to recover the money owed by the government, Motors Insurance Company filed a lawsuit against the government seeking the full $750,000 value of the wrecked 1995 Ferrari F50.
The vehicle originally had been stolen in 2003 from a Ferrari dealer in Pennsylvania. Motors paid the $630,000 insurance claim, giving the firm title to the missing exotic. On August 12, 2008, the FBI stumbled upon the car in Kentucky during a separate investigation. The agency held the vehicle with permission from Motors. On May 27, 2009, FBI Special Agent Frederick C. Kingston got behind the wheel of a 1995 Ferrari F50 with by Assistant US Attorney J. Hamilton Thompson in the passenger seat.
“Just a few seconds after we left the parking lot, we went around a curve, and the rear of the car began sliding,” Thompson wrote in an email to Managing Assistant US Attorney E.J. Walbourn on the day of the incident. “The agent tried to regain control, but the car fishtailed and slid sideways up onto the curb. The vehicle came to rest against a row of bushes and a small tree. Both myself and the agent exited of our own power.”
A claims adjuster noted the frame was bent, rendering the vehicle — now worth $750,000 in working condition — a total loss. DOJ began stonewalling when Motors tried to get information about what happened. The agency refused to honor a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any documents regarding the storage and use of the vehicle on the day of the accident. The request was denied as “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Motors filed a separate lawsuit to force the disclosure of agency records concerning the Ferrari.
“Based on the denial of Motors Insurance Company’s claim, plaintiff anticipates that DOJ and FBI will claim immunity against civil liability under 28 USC Section 2680(c) and assert that the vehicle was damaged while in the detention of law enforcement authorities,” Motors attorney Richard C. Kraus wrote in an April 14 lawsuit. “The information requested under FOIA and withheld by DOJ and FBI will be necessary to determine whether 28 USC Section 2680(c) applies.”
That is precisely what DOJ has done. The agency insists sovereign immunity prohibits the suit, and no negligence claim can arise because federal law prohibits claims against the government for goods damaged while detained by law enforcement.
“The exception applies to bar suit against the United States and does not permit litigation over the reasonableness of the law enforcement officer’s conduct in question,” Assistant Attorney General Tony West wrote in a May 9 brief to the court. “The broad interpretation of the detention-of-goods exception, coupled with the necessity that the court construe the United States’ waiver of sovereign immunity strictly in favor of the sovereign, require a finding that the United States has not consented to this sort of suit and plaintiff has failed to state a claim under federal law. Accordingly, the United States respectfully requests that the above-captioned action be dismissed with prejudice.”
US District Judge Avern Cohn on Tuesday set a June 22 date for final briefs on the government’s motion to dismiss the suit.