On a bright sunny summer morning, Jim Shelton (name is not real) left his two-story Riverside home, kissing his wife and three year old daughter. He planned to get on the freeway for his morning commute to Anaheim. Jim had made this commute so many times that he felt he could drive the route blind-folded. Moving through the neighborhood streets with the smoothness of a well trained driver, Jim made his customary left turn at the left turn arrow on to Tyler Street heading south to the 91 freeway.
Reaching over to turn on his morning radio talk show to occupy his time on the freeway, he never saw the tire service truck blow through the red light and crash into his 2004 Volvo sedan just behind the driver's door. Jim’s car was thrown into a reverse spin until it hit another car just waiting at southbound red light. When Jim's car finally stopped moving and spinning, Jim was bleeding, disoriented and sensing shooting, stabbing and excruciating pain in his left leg. When he could finally focus on his injuries, he knew he was in trouble with a compound left leg fracture. It was not more than a matter of a few moments when people came running to Jim’s aide and to help the others in the accident.
One of those people soon offering assistance was neither a witness, nor on the scene at the time of the accident. Paola Suarez had been four miles away listening to her police scanner for a report of just the right type of accident for her needs. When she heard the call for police, fire and ambulance, she knew this was the accident she was waiting for that morning. She knew if she was able to reach the accident in time, quickly earn the victim's trust, and get him signed up, she could be looking at a great pay day. Paola did "independent contracting" work for a downtown Los Angeles law firm looking to "build" it's legal presence in the Inland Empire. Paola got paid $300 for each case she signed up and a bonus for a substantial recovery.
Paola is called a capper or a runner. Her conduct is illegal and unethical. A law firm or doctor who hires or uses a runner or capper to sign up cases is violating the attorney's code of ethics (yes there is a code of ethics for lawyers) and violating the law. Unfortunately, stories such as this, are repeated time and again across the Inland Empire. More unfortunate is the fact law enforcement agencies and district attorneys who are commissioned to prosecute these cases have little interest, or resources, to arrest and prosecute the runners, cappers, attorneys, doctors and others involved in these illegal solicitations and contracts.
On the positive side, there have been some prosecutions, including one high profile case in Santa Ana federal court. In September 2012, a trial began against an attorney, accountant and two administrators of a hospital for using cappers to secure patients for the facility. That case resulted in over $154 million of improperly billed services. This is an extreme case, but it should be noted that even in the very smallest cases, individuals are greatly affected and lives are turned upside down from these acts.
The Courts have stated any attorney knowingly engaged in this conduct, whether in the personal injury field or criminal arena (providing kickbacks to bails bondsmen), are committing illegal acts. If you refer a friend or neighbor to a lawyer, do not negotiate a payment for the referral, both you and the lawyer are breaking the law. This does not prevent the lawyer from providing a thank you gift as a token of appreciation. Your unpaid recommendations of good lawyers helps everyone, including the injured person.
As a citizen of this State, here is how you and legitimate lawyers can work together to turn the tide on these corrupt lawyers. First, make sure you never allow someone to improperly solicit your personal injury business. Make sure you only hire attorneys who do things right, like the Inland Empire Law Group. Second, if you know someone who signed a contract under circumstances where the lawyer or someone for the lawyer came "ambulance chasing," encourage them to see a legitimate lawyer. A little known secret is that any lawyer's contract secured through a capper is void. That means the injured person can just walk away from the contract without liability. Finally, report any such illegal activity to the local authorities or to the State Bar.
If we collectively fight to save the integrity of our legal system can we turn back these lawyers from taking advantage of innocent accident victims. If you want to report this conduct, call the State Bar of California at 1-800-843-9053, your local district attorney's office or let our office know so we can help.