New law puts ambulance chasers in the hot seat

The SE Texas Record Jan. 3, 2012, 4:17am

By Linda McKenna

No matter when we turn on our televisions, we always seem to see the same monotonous commercials featuring some personal injury lawyers promising thousands of dollars in damages to victims of an accident.

As annoying as these advertisements may be, they are usually legal solicitations for clients. What is a crime, however, is blatant and improper solicitation to instigate a lawsuit, and since a new Texas anti-barratry law took effect on September 1, anyone who has been solicited by a lawyer, one of his or her employees or "case runners" to file a lawsuit now has grounds to seek retribution.

In fact, the first lawsuit based on this new law has been filed in Corpus Christi. The suit alleges that two South Texas lawyers asked their San Antonio office manager to illegally solicit cases � offering to pay her a 15 percent bonus for "any case originated/referred" by her.

Committing barratry or what is commonly referred to as "ambulance chasing" has been illegal in Texas for some time. But with few criminal prosecutions, this sleazy predatory practice has continued to escalate, especially in South Texas.

Ambulance chasing bypasses all sense of ethics, preying on people who are potentially experiencing theworst, most painful event of their lives. Stories abound of potential clients being cornered at accident scenes, in emergency rooms and in funeral homes by lawyers or their representatives. Victims or the families of victims are often offered huge amounts of cash up front if they agree to file a suit.

The Texas legal community has long been in agreement that this immoral practice does nothing but diminish the state's civil justice system. Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Trial Lawyer Association, two organizations that are often at odds, have joined forces with other legal organizations to get a more stringent law passed. They finally proved successful when Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 1716 into law on May 19, 2011.

Under the new law, a client may seek to void any legal contract if it is attained as a result of barratry, as well as sue for attorney's fees and expenses, as well as damages.

In addition, the new law allows a barratry victim who didn't sign a legal contract to sue "any person who committed barratry." In the first test of the new law, the office manager in question is seeking the allowed $10,000 penalty plus damages and legal fees. This suit will send a loud and clear message to ambulance chasers that illegally soliciting a lawsuit will not be tolerated in Texas.

Bill Edwards, a Corpus Christi-based lawyer who advocated for strengthening the barratry law, is the attorney in this first case. He has pointed to the lack of policing of barratry as to why the practice is so prevalent in South Texas.

One year before SB 1716 was signed into law, Edwards remarked to the San Antonio Express-News that barratry usually poses little risk for the lawyers or the case runners. "There's a lot of money involved, and it's a lot safer than drugs. You don't get shot and you don't get put in jail," he said.

Hopefully this first test of the new law will go a long way to change that fraudulent mindset. Thanks to the new law and the courage of this first client, we have taken another important step to ensuring that the Texas legal system continues to be honorable and just.

Linda McKenna is the president of the Rio Grande Valley Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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