Every industry has its negative stereotypes whether it’s a doctor who’s a quack or a politician who’s a hack. In the field of personal injury, we call them “ambulance chasers.” What most people don’t realize is that ambulance chasing isn’t just shady; it’s illegal. You may not see the words “ambulance chaser” in the legal code but you will see the more antiquated word “barratry.” Barratry occurs when an attorney offers legal services to someone within 31 days after an accident.
What Is the Difference Between Barratry and Marketing?
Here’s the deal – all the legal marketing that firms do is to help those following an accident make an independent, informed decision on representation. A law firm should never contact you directly regarding an accident. You may see an ad on TV, check out their website or even drive past a billboard, but you should never get a call out of the blue from an attorney that you did not make contact with first.
What Are We Doing About it?
The Texas legislature is finally cracking-down on this immoral and illegal practice after a reported increase in the number of incidents and a recent public scandal. The idea is to smoke out ambulance chasers and then formally charge them rather than turning a blind eye to the practice, as they have done too often in the past. The charges are serious – for an attorney, barratry can mean disbarment and up to 10 years in prison.
This may seem harsh to some, but keep in mind the number of clients that ambulance chasers cheat on a daily basis. These types of lawyers often partner with medical professionals like chiropractors or unethical marketers in order to misrepresent themselves to potential clients. Their deals can include other types of illegality like insurance fraud.
Put yourselves in the shoes of the victim – you’ve just been in a terrible accident, or worse, you’ve just lost a family member and right-off-the-bat a suit-wearing stranger saunters up and hands you a business card. It’s a disrespectful practice that at best angers victims, and at worst prays on people’s emotional and physical weakness in order to make a quick buck. Now you can see why Texas is stepping up their enforcement of barratry laws.
Ambulance chasing has been on the rise. No one is exactly sure why, it could be the economy or the law has changed. One attorney’s actions caught the entire state’s attention. The public shock came when Texas State Representative Ron Reynolds of Missouri City was charged for barratry along with a chiropractor and marketer. The allegations are that a Houston attorney who was in an accident was contact immediately afterwards by the marketer. The attorney, who knew the practice of barratry was illegal, decided to use this as an opportunity to catch the wrong-doer red handed. The marketer set up an appointment with the chiropractor. After arriving at the clinic she was presented with an attorney-client contract for Reynolds to represent her. When the she told the chiropractor that she wasn’t injured, he worked on her until she was in pain to simulate a real injury.
Representative Reynolds stated that he was completely innocent. He has served as an adjunct professor at Texas Southern University and has voted in favor of barratry penalties in the past. He said the allegations were brought forward for political reasons which is a claim I won’t dispute, since I’m not familiar with all the legal details of the case. However, I am sure that whatever the catalyst, any measure the state takes to prosecute ambulance chasers is one that will improve the overall reputation and service of personal injury attorneys across Texas.
More than Just Disbarment or a Fine…
To prove they are serious about ending barratry in Texas, the Texas House passed a law that empowers victims to sue a lawyer or someone who is working with that lawyer for damages. If the victim signed a contract he or she can sue for the money paid to the lawyer plus additional damages. Even more empowering, anyone who is approached by an ambulance chaser but does not sign a contract can still sue for up to $10,000.
Since the law’s enactment and after the Representative Reynolds scandal, prosecutions for barratry have gone up. By this time last month Houston had already convicted two ambulance chasers for barratry including Corpus Christi attorney Benito Garza. These changes may have begun in Houston, but it’s only a matter of time before Dallas begins to prosecute these cases. The sooner the better – it’s time to reassure the public that they will not be cheated by unethical attorneys, and to give the honest personal injury lawyers in town an opportunity to shine.
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