I wish the State Bar of Texas would get serious about the “ambulance chasers” who give the legal profession a bad reputation. I’ve seen little evidence of that, but a recent law passed in Texas gives a potential new solution to the problem. There is now a civil remedy available for those who have been illegally solicited by personal injury lawyers, and at least a few people are coming forward and filing suits against those lawyers. Parts of these recent developments were mentioned in a story in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:
Joined by lawyers who are tired of competitors illegally soliciting business after accidents, prosecutors are cracking down on a lesser-known, multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise in Texas: barratry.
Barratry — illegally offering legal services to people within 90 days following an accident — is a third-degree felony in Texas punishable by up to 10 years in jail. The difficulty in prosecuting the white-collar crime is often wrapped up in uncovering systematic insurance fraud schemes. Texas lawmakers passed a law last session to bolster the battle against barratry, and a handful of notable arrests — including charges against a state representative — have been made this year, presumably with more to come.
In practice, barratry ranges from small-scale operations — case runners approaching accident victims at their home or a hospital, and then selling the case to a lawyer — to large-scale schemes, such as when telemarketers, chiropractic firms and legal offices conspire to lure patients, inflate injuries and bank millions of dollars from fraudulent insurance claims.
“I have seen a huge increase in this sort of activity lately,” said Wendy Baker, the Harris County prosecutor who is pursuing barratry charges against State Representative Ron Reynolds, Democrat of Missouri City. “I don’t know why some crimes become more popular than others, but at the moment, it seems to be barratry.”
Mr. Reynolds was arrested after an undercover investigation by the Harris County district attorney’s office determined a chiropractic firm was persuading patients to sign contracts naming Mr. Reynolds as their legal counsel before the patients had physical exams or met him. Mr. Reynolds was released on bail and issued a statement maintaining his innocence.
“Since becoming an elected official,” he said, “I have voted for new laws holding lawyers guilty of barratry more accountable to their victims.”
In the 2011 legislative session, the Texas House voted unanimously for a law that allows barratry victims to sue a lawyer or case runner to void an illegally solicited contract and collect any money paid to the lawyer plus damages. A person who is solicited, but does not sign a contract, can also sue for up to $10,000.
“It’s a law with some teeth,” said Bill Edwards, a personal injury lawyer in Corpus Christi who supports the new law. In addition to creating a financial incentive for plaintiffs to turn in lawyers and case runners who make illegal offers, Mr. Edwards said that under the new law, lawyers like him can provide criminal evidence, collected during pretrial discovery hearings in civil suits, to prosecutors and the State Bar of Texas.
“It’s a safe bet that we’re going to see an increase in the prosecution of this,” said Jesse McClure, one of two new special prosecutors the Texas Department of Insurance hired to increase prosecutions of insurance fraud. He added that Mr. Reynolds’s arrest “got everyone’s attention,” and he expects to prosecute a number of barratry cases that will come to light as a result of the new law and his insurance fraud investigations.