A Baton Rouge woman testified Thursday in the state's lawsuit against a local body shop that her wrecked car was held for "ransom" after she had it towed there in March but then decided against having the shop do the repairs.
The woman, Karen Nyboer, was testifying in a court proceeding before District Judge Todd Hernandez on Thursday. The judge threw out one of the state's claims — alleging false advertising — saying the state presented no evidence to support the claim.
The judge asked for written post-hearing arguments by Tuesday on the state's unfair trade practices claim and said he would rule shortly thereafter on the state's request for a preliminary injunction against Owens Collision and Owens himself.
At Thursday's hearing, Nyboer said she reluctantly signed a repair contract with Owens Collision and Service Center, before an estimate was provided. She said she did so after the office manager assured her the shop would merely hold the vehicle until she made a final decision about repairs.
After Nyboer's insurance adjuster told her the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox was not totaled but estimated it would cost $15,000 to repair, Nyboer said, she told the office manager she wanted to have her car moved from Owens — something the manager tried to persuade her not to do.
When Nyboer persisted, she testified she was presented with a bill for $4,500, which included processing, storage and other fees.
"The only way we're going to get the vehicle is to pay the ransom," Nyboer recalled telling her husband.
Nyboer said she repeatedly requested an itemized invoice for what she termed the "extravagant bill" but never received one. Instead, Nyboer said, she was told to leave the building and not allowed to see her car or retrieve belongings from it.
Nyboer said the bill was paid through an attorney, and she got the car back a month after the accident.
"I thought it was criminal that this was going on, and we wanted to stop it," she said, explaining why she complained to the Louisiana Attorney General's Office.
That office sued Owens Collision and company owner Greg Owens last month in Baton Rouge state court, alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices and false advertising.
Greg Owens' attorney, Karl Koch, said outside the courtroom that complaints against Owens Collision are few and far between.
"He's proud of the way he runs his business, and he does quality work," Koch said.
Koch told Hernandez during the hearing that, "As a practical matter, the relief requested (by the state) will shut down my client."
The Attorney General's Office is asking the judge to suspend the company's rights to do business in the state.
Owens Collision's office manager, Devin Stevens, testified that Nyboer was unhappy that her insurance adjuster said her car was not a total loss. Nyboer said her insurance company ultimately totaled the car.
Stevens said the body shop repairs about 100 vehicles a month and gets about five complaints each month, all about money.
Ashly Earl, who represents Owens Collision in the case, said during the hearing that the company has repaired 6,000 vehicles in the last eight years.
Assistant state Attorney General Hanna Thomas said in court that the state has received 50-plus complaints about Owens Collision since 2008. The state opened its investigation in 2014, she said.
Gail Mackey, of Baton Rouge, testified her 92-year-old mother's wrecked 2011 Toyota Camry was taken to Owens Collision in late January for an estimate and it remains there today.
The insurance company's repair estimate was $3,100, she said, but Owens Collision's estimate was $6,200. When Mackey told the body shop she would come pick up the car, she was told there was a bill of $4,900.
"The bill has to be paid in full before we release the vehicle," Stevens said of all Owens' customers.
When Stevens was asked during the hearing how often Owens Collision's estimate is higher than the insurance company estimate, she replied, "Most of the time."
Testimony from another local body shop owner indicated that insurance company estimates are always lower than body shop estimates.
Hernandez remarked that the public appears "caught in the middle."