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VOL. 122 | NO. 132 | Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Illiterate Senior Co-Signing For Insurance Signs For Car Instead, Suit Alleges

By Rosalind Guy

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Walter Tidwell only wanted to help his stepdaughter, "a person who he trusted and helped raise."

Catrice Hale contacted her stepfather in June 2006 and asked him to co-sign for her automobile insurance. He agreed, but adamantly stated he had no intention of buying a car.

Not only did he tell Hale that, he also told the salesman at Gossett Motor Cars Inc., Reginald Brown, he had no intention of buying a car, according to a lawsuit recently filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

"You know I can't read," Tidwell said to Brown during that visit to Gossett, according to court documents. "I'm going to help her (Hale) sign for her insurance, but I am not going to sign for a car."

Tidwell filed the suit June 28 against Gossett Motor Cars, Wells Fargo Auto Finance Inc., Brown and Hale, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. He is seeking an award of actual damages in the amount of total indebtedness owed to Wells Fargo, compensatory damages in the amount of at least $10,000 and punitive damages of at least $50,000.

Trust misplaced?

An illiterate senior citizen, Tidwell couldn't read the papers he signed that day, according to his attorney, Craig Barnes of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS). He apparently trusted Hale and Brown when they told him he was signing for insurance.

"(Tidwell is) able to make a mark or sign something, but he's not able to read and comprehend something of even the most basic, elementary level," Barnes said.

"You are only signing for insurance," Tidwell said Brown assured him, according to the lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Brown, who is still employed at Gossett, declined to comment on the allegations.

"I cannot really say nothing about none of that," he said.

Neither Hale nor Tidwell could be reached for comment. Phone numbers listed for both of them have been disconnected.

David Gossett, co-owner of Gossett, declined to comment on the matter.

"We just got the suit," he said. "It's still pending litigation. We do dispute the allegations. I can't comment. I wish I could comment, but I can't. We're letting the legal department handle it."

Lauren Holloway, an attorney with Zurich North America who's handling the case for Gossett, also declined to comment on the details of the case.

"I am representing Gossett Motor Cars Inc. in that case," Holloway said. "And the only thing I can tell you is that I recently received this case and that Gossett Motor Cars denies the allegations. But it'd be inappropriate for me to comment on any details at this time. And it's not that we want to be uncooperative, it's just that we really haven't had a chance to complete our investigation. But at this point we deny the allegations."

'On the hook'

A few weeks after the original visit to the Gossett Motor Cars at 1900 Covington Pike, Tidwell received a letter from Wells Fargo Auto Finance Inc. Tidwell's girlfriend, Wilma Ship, opened the letter and told him it appeared he had bought a car from Gossett.

Tidwell told Barnes he immediately returned to the Gossett dealership when he found out he had signed for a car.

"And he said I didn't buy this car, I want to give the car back," Barnes said, recounting what Tidwell told him. "He found Catrice Hale ... well, he found the car and had the car taken back to the dealership. And the salesperson agreed (to take the car back). But they turned around and gave it back to Catrice."

Hale's car since has been repossessed.

"So (Tidwell's) on the hook, as it stands, as having defaulted on this car," said Webb Brewer, MALS litigation director. "And he really got no benefit at all from the deal and he didn't even understand that he was an accommodating party."

Brewer said he believes documents will show that Tidwell's income was falsely reported for him to be approved to buy the car.

The car was financed with monthly payments of $437.60, which amounts to about 78 percent of Tidwell's monthly income, Brewer said.

Tidwell, who has been receiving Social Security/disability payments since 1985, has a total monthly income of $560. He's been receiving disability payments since he was shot four times in the chest during an attempted robbery at a mechanic shop at which he was working.

"So obviously he couldn't afford the car," Brewer said. "I think the intention was that she was going to pay the note, rather than he. But I would guess, and I don't think we have these records yet, but I would bet that his income was falsely listed on the loan application."

Brewer said he sees a lot of predatory mortgage lending cases in which a person's income is falsely reported.

"In almost every case that I see, in that context, the loan application is falsified to show income a person doesn't have," Brewer said. "And it looks like that happened here."

Another aspect of the case Brewer said is important is the alleged violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which regulates the collection, dissemination and use of consumer credit information.

"Mr. Tidwell didn't knowingly authorize anybody to pull his credit report," Brewer said. "And yet they did. And that's a real serious matter. Your credit score is adversely affected by hits on your credit, so every time somebody makes an inquiry about it, it lowers your credit rating."

Barnes said the situation has been stressful for his client, who's currently receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. But, Barnes said, the case is about more than allegations that Tidwell had his credit adversely affected by a deal to which he never consented.

"There's the economic damage, but also what we're alleging here is the violation of the public trust," Barnes said. "You know with taking an elderly person who's on a fixed income and using him. And, while they don't specifically put in their training manual about how to do this, it (the dealership) certainly looks the other way as long as they keep selling cars. What we want to try to do is make an impact, make an example out of this car company and to put the other car companies on notice that if they do these kinds of things, there are going to be consequences."

Satisfactory record

Gossett Motor Cars is a member of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South and has a satisfactory record with the bureau, according to information found on its Web site, www.midsouth.bbb.org.

A satisfactory record means a company has been in business for at least 12 months and "properly addressed matters referred by the Bureau."

The bureau has processed 94 complaints in the last 36 months against the dealership, which has multiple locations. Of those 94 complaints closed during that period, 31 were closed in the last year.

The complaints against Gossett concerned advertising issues, sales practice issues, contract issues and service or repair issues, among others.

So far Gossett has yet to file an answer to the lawsuit. Once an answer is filed, the attorneys said they hope to move to the discovery phase. In discovery, MALS attorneys will be able to have access to documents and other things they need to flesh out their case.

Barnes said he's seeing more cases like the one involving Tidwell coming through the MALS consumer division. Right now, in addition to the Tidwell case, he is representing Ozella Hayes, who's suing the Price Ford dealership in Millington for selling her a car while misleading her to believe that something was wrong with her old car.

To read more about the Hayes' lawsuit, see the June 7 lead story at www.memphisdailynews.com.

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