The Dallas Morning News reports today that the state is taking at least one small step toward protecting auto accident victims from unauthorized and sometimes illegal solicitation from medical clinics, body shops, and lawyers.
As is, anyone who is involved in a collision in Dallas is exposed to literally dozens of phone calls offering free X-rays, free property damage estimates, and worst of all, legal representation. Telemarketers or representatives for doctors and lawyers line up at the police department every day and buy accident reports. Then they call the innocent parties in the collision, if the police report verifies there is insurance available. Various bills to protect consumers from these solicitation calls have either not passed the Texas House or Senate, or in one case, was vetoed by Governor Perry.
The calls are frequently made on behalf of medical clinics, and offer to come to the accident victim’s house and drive them to the doctor for a free consultation. In many cases, once the person arrives at the doctor’s office he or she is told that before the examination can begin, a contract must be signed with a lawyer who has representative at the clinic. It is not only unethical, but also illegal, for a lawyer to solicit business in this manner. Unfortunately, neither the State Bar nor the District Attorney’s office seems to take any interest in these violations. As a result, accident victims are essentially tricked into hiring unethical lawyers (who probably are not among the best lawyers in town).
Now, by agreement between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Transportation, accident victims will no longer have to give their phone numbers after a collision. Of course, it won’t take much work to find numbers on the Internet, and some hard-core solicitors will just drive to the homes of the victims. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. The new rule takes effect Monday, April 7, 2008. Here are excerpts from the story:
“It is getting to the point where every person involved in a reported traffic accident is being solicited,” said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Texas Committee on Insurance Fraud, a panel created by the insurance industry and the Texas Department of Insurance.
“The telemarketers say whatever it takes to get crash victims into the doctor’s office. They are today’s lazy ambulance chasers, doing it all by phone. We are trying to put a stop to these calls or at least slow them down.”
Without phone numbers on official crash reports, telemarketers will have to rely on phone books or the Internet to get numbers to contact accident victims, Mr. Hanna said. They won’t have access to unlisted numbers, cellphones and business numbers – which officials estimate will cut the number of unsolicited calls by at least half. Fred Lohmann, Dallas-area director of the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau, said telemarketers line up every day at police departments and central records offices across the state to purchase crash reports from the previous day. Although state law requires them to know the date and location of the accident to buy each report, telemarketers simply purchase police department dispatch logs beforehand and get the information they need to purchase the crash reports. “The accident reports are the fuel that allows the solicitation process to work,” Mr. Lohmann said. “Oftentimes they will give the appearance of being a representative of the victim’s insurance company, and they tell the person to go to a clinic for treatment or risk not getting their insurance claim paid.”
A bill was introduced in the Legislature last year to impose a 30-day hold on all crash reports, except for crash victims, law enforcement officers, insurers and the news media. But the measure was killed under heavy opposition from telemarketing firms.
“We’re up against a group that has made a lot of money through these harassing phone calls, and they’ll do whatever it takes to stop us,” Mr. Hanna said, noting that another effort will be made to pass the bill in the 2009 legislative session.
The Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the Texas Chiropractic Association supported the legislation as well as another bill to make telemarketing of traffic victims illegal. That bill also failed.
The solicitation of business using information contained in a police dispatch log is a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, but most prosecutors say they can’t justify the resources to go after telemarketers who violate the law.
Insurance industry representatives said the additional medical and legal expenses created by telemarketers generate unnecessary costs that are in the end paid for by insured drivers across the state in the form of higher premiums.