By Todd Ceisner
While a number of Bassmaster Elite Series pros opted to hang around Texas or make their way up to Oklahoma following the Lake Fork Texas Fest tournament in early May, Matt Arey wanted to get home and see his family. He knew it meant driving from the Dallas area to North Carolina and then back to Oklahoma a few days later for the still-on-the-schedule Fort Gibson Lake Elite Series, but spending time with his wife and two daughters outweighed saving some miles on his Toyota Tundra.
Arey departed Texas on May 5, following a 19th-place finish at Fork. After stopping to sleep for several hours, he resumed driving the next day and was nearly to the school where his daughter Reese was performing in a kindergarten play when he was involved in a traffic accident with a vehicle driven by an officer from the Shelby (N.C.) Police Department.
According to the accident report, a copy of which Arey provided to BassFan, the police cruiser made a right turn at an intersection which Arey had already navigated through. The police vehicle, which had its lights and sirens engaged while in pursuit of another vehicle, made the turn at an approximate speed of 55 mph, but the driver lost control in the process, drifted into Arey’s lane and slammed into Arey’s boat. Both Arey and the officer were uninjured, but Arey’s boat and trailer suffered significant damage.
Ultimately, Arey was determined to be not at fault in the accident. Because of that, he figured the process by which the damages to his boat and trailer would be addressed would be fairly simple. Instead, it has turned into a frustrating ordeal.
The jolt of the collision turned the boat sideways on the trailer.
This was not an incident where Arey and the other driver could simply exchange insurance information and adjusters would later assess the damage that would be repaired at a local auto body shop. This was a collision involving a police vehicle and Arey’s floating workplace.
The Shelby Police Department’s insurance is handled through the North Carolina League of Municipalities, which according to its website is “a service and advocacy organization” that represents nearly every municipality in the state. A claim for the damage done to Arey’s boat and trailer was entered and reviewed by the NCLM, which also oversees the Interlocal Risk Financing Fund of North Carolina.
In a letter dated May 30, the NCLM advised Arey that his claim was denied because the officer’s actions “failed to meet the standards of gross negligence in this accident, meaning that he did not operate the vehicle in a willful, wanton, reckless manner with reckless disregard for the safety of others.”
Arey interpreted the letter’s contents to mean that since the officer didn’t intentionally collide with his boat, the NCLM would not cover the damages.
“The denial makes no sense,” Arey said. “Police and ambulance drivers don’t operate under the same negligence laws as we do.”
Arey and his wife, Emily, have spent weeks trying to gain a better understanding of the insurance rules at play and what legal options, if any, exist. Arey has consulted with attorneys, but a civil action against the city of Shelby would be time-consuming and would pit Arey against his hometown.
“I don’t want to sue the city I grew up in,” he said. “I know just about everybody here, so that’s not something I want to do.”
He made contact with representatives at the North Carolina Insurance Commission to apprise them of his situation. A letter in support of Arey will be forwarded to the NCLM in hopes the claim will be reconsidered, but since the NCIC does not have oversight of the NCLM, the letter isn’t likely to overturn the denial.
In the wake of the ordeal, Arey sees an opportunity to raise awareness about the potential pitfalls that await people involved in similar traffic accidents and he’s reached out to local and state politicians to see if changes can be made.
“Moving forward, I want the public to be protected from this,” he said. “I was raised to the do the right things and I believe in the law and our police. I support them all but there are some injustices that need to be addressed. I don’t accept a company screwing somebody over. Until it happens to you, you don’t really take any action. The deeper I’ve dug into it, the more I don’t like it.”
One saving grace for Arey is that the Fort Gibson tournament was postponed until September due to flooding in Oklahoma. If it had gone on as scheduled, he would’ve had to scramble together an unwrapped loaner boat and it likely wouldn’t have been rigged to his preferences. With the Lake Guntersville Elite Series slated to begin June 21, it’s given him time to get a backup boat set up.
Arey has secured a loaner boat for the remainder of the season and will look to maintain his place inside the Bassmaster Classic cut, starting next week at Lake Guntersville.
“The cancellation was a blessing, but at the same time, we’ve been fighting this from a different angle,” said Arey, who's 23rd in Angler of the Year points after five tournaments. “I’ve been fortunate from a sponsor and friend and family standpoint. I need my boat to get my job done. That’s my number one tool and B.A.S.S. and my sponsors have been very understanding. It’s been a pain in the rear and a little stressful, but it could be a lot worse.”
The loaner boat Arey will compete out of for the remainder of the season isn’t all that different from the one he started with. By working with Angler’s Choice Marine, which has locations in North Carolina and Virginia, Arey was able to get paired up with the 2018 Ranger Z520L that FLW Tour angler Bryan Thrift used last season. The Color Spot expedited a new wrap and aside from a trolling motor that needed to be swapped out, Arey said the boat is as close to the damaged one as he’s going to get on such short notice.
He had it out on the water last week and got everything set up to his liking. Thrift, with whom Arey co-hosts a video podcast, was quick to remind his pal that the boat has a Tour win under its belt.
The damaged boat is at Arey’s house and two weeks ago he filed a claim for the damage under his insurance. He said a marine adjuster has already inspected it and now he’s awaiting a determination as to how his insurance carrier will want to proceed. Arey believes the best outcome is for the boat to be ruled a total loss. That way, he won’t have to trouble Ranger with doing the repairs and it would be a step toward putting the ordeal behind him.
While the fallout of the accident has been a major distraction, Arey doesn’t see it carrying over to the water when the Elite Series schedule resumes later this month at Guntersville.
“The only challenge I’ll have is if I see blue or yellow lights coming behind me, I might have to pull off on a side road,” he joked. “I’m going to do my job when I’m on the water. I’ve been in this 10, 12 years so I don’t let that stuff bother me when I’m out there doing my job.”