There is a plague sweeping through Southern California’s Inland Empire. This plague is not of an illness or a disease. This plague attacks and takes advantage of the weak, the injured and the most vulnerable. This plague reaches across all economic levels, however, the poor and minority, the ones who can least afford it are the most likely to be victimized by this plague. What is this plague I speak of? It is the "ambulance chaser" lawyers, their "runners," "cappers," and insider informants.
Not All Personal Injury Attorneys Are "Ambulance Chasers"
The name "ambulance chaser" is all too often used to degrade our profession in a general sense. However, the true definition of an ambulance chaser involves an attorney who himself, or herself, or with the help of others, goes directly to an accident victim, without an invitation, and personally, or by telephone, solicits accident victims or their families for representation in their personal injury or wrongful death claims.
A "runner" or "capper" is a person, who for money, acts in any manner as an agent for an attorney, or law firm, whether or not the attorney is actually a licensed California attorney, and actively solicits business for the attorney or law firm in violation of the prohibition of direct solicitation.
This Ambluance Chasing Activity is Illegal in California
Here is a little known fact: A lawyer, capper or runner who solicits any business for any attorney, in any hospital, court, or in any public or private place, on any street or highway, or in any private property, commits a crime. The penalties for violating this law are substantial, including jail time and fines up to $15,000.00. It should be noted that it is not illegal for someone to recommend a lawyer to a person who needs one, so long as it is done without the expectation of compensation for the referral.
Former Clients of These Corrupt Attorneys Have the Right to Recover Their Fees
Here is another little known fact, as it relates to the victims of these criminals, the "clients": The contracts procured by a runner, capper or lawyer in violation of this prohibition are void. The victims of these crimes must know their rights and must have real lawyers to protect their legal rights if they are going to regain their losses from these void contracts. The law gives the former clients of these corrupt lawyers the right to recover all legal fees and other compensation paid under the void contracts. (B & P C §6154) The Business and Professions Code and Unfair Practices Act is the means by which the rights can be enforced.
There are no exceptions to the penalty associated with this law. Simply put, if a lawyer secured a client illegally, in violation of this law and a court determines the contract to be void, one of the allowable penalties, is the complete forfeiture of all fees and payments made to the lawyer.
How Runners and Cappers Find Accident Victims
Digging deeper into how these runners and cappers are securing their information is even more sinister and corrupt. There are generally two or three ways these individuals are finding accident victims and their families to prey upon. One way is the use of police and emergency electronic scanners. If they hear the dispatch for a traffic collision, or some other tragedy which they believe resulted in substantial injuries or death, they immediately race out to the accident scene to make contact with the individuals they perceive to be the victims of a significant accident.
These runners and cappers promise large financial recoveries and other promises to lure these victims to sign agreements, or to make commitments to use their associated lawyers. Sometimes, the runners and cappers call tow truck drivers they work with to arrive on scene to "help" in removing the car, thereby securing additional information from these accident victims. Finally, the capper will often represent themselves as witnesses to the accident, video and photograph the scene, provide information about legal representation and how they can "help" their case.
A second scam uses "insiders" within the law enforcement agencies, the Coroner’s office, emergency rooms and other places where private information is obtained regarding accident victims. These "insiders" supply information about the accident victims and their families gleaned from the private police reports and medical records of the injury victim. Access to this information, by law is supposed to be restricted to only a certain few individuals. Runners and cappers are not within the circle of the limited few. However, the insider contacts within these agencies and institutions, for a few hundred dollars a lead, will extract the private information from the records, call the cappers with information on a good injury accident, thereby allowing them to target the individuals directly in their homes or the hospitals. Armed with this information, the runner or capper race to the hospital bed of the injured victim, or to the front door of their home, to jump ahead of all the law abiding lawyers, illegally attempting to secure the business for the capper’s lawyers. The cappers are then rewarded with their own level of compensation by the lawyer. It should be noted that if a government official is caught engaging in this activity, they "shall forfeit the right to his office and employment."
One less pernicious practice by these lawyers, but similarly annoying, is the use of insider personal information of accident victims, to use direct mail letters. While the act of mailing a letter to an accident victim is not technically a violation of any ethical rules, the problem comes from the fact that in order to send those letters, the lawyers had to access personal private information from police reports, ambulance or medical records. In other words, this practice also starts with a violation of the law.
Have You Been a Victim of This Plague?
Our Firm Is Committed to Fighting Against These Illegal Practices
As President of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association I started a campaign of bringing these issues to the attention of law enforcement and the public. Our Bar began notifying agencies and hospitals of this activity and asking them to clean up their houses. We notified the District Attorney of our concern with this problem. Additionally, the WSBCBA started reaching out to insurance companies, their attorneys and others to find the runners, cappers and victims of these ambulance chasers.
I hope these efforts will be well received and will expose these pernicious acts so that they can’t continue to work in the shadows and without risk of reprisal. If I am able to give pause to those who would expose personal information to ambulance chasers, if I can keep individuals from gaining advantage over injury victims, or if I can even the playing field for all those who play by the rules, I will have started the process of rolling back this illegal conduct and advancing the rights of legitimate and hardworking attorneys and bar members.
I Invite Everyone To Join With Me In This Fight
If you know those who are engaged in these activities, please let me know so I can garner the interest of the authorities and stop these criminals before they do anymore damage to our legal community. To all members of the legal community that do it right, I applaud you. To those who manipulate and cheat the system, I implore you to change your ways and remember your ethical duties and sworn oath to uphold the laws of this great State of California.