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COLUMN ONE : Fresh on the Heels of Trouble : Ambulance chasing lawyers are getting more aggressive. Some pay tipsters or use telemarketing. One attorney, the ‘Master of Disaster,’ flies around the world to catastrophes.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

When a chemical factory spewed a toxic cloud last July over Richmond, among the first to arrive in the small, low-income city near here were eager lawyers and their emissaries.

They distributed leaflets outside emergency rooms, waved retainer contracts from sidewalk desks made of plastic milk crates and signed up clients on the hoods of cars.

“All of a sudden there is money here, and the attorneys are jumping,” complained resident Sandora Becks, 52, who said one law firm guaranteed her at least $1,000 if she retained it to fight the chemical company.

Such ambulance chasing has long been a part of the legal profession--and usually branded as unethical or worse. But some bar leaders and legal experts believe it is on the rise as a glut of lawyers breeds desperation in seeking clients.

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“There are too many lawyers chasing too few cases,” said general counsel James McCormack of the Texas bar. He reports a “dramatic increase” in improper solicitation by lawyers in the last five years. His state, known as the plaintiffs’ capital of the country because of high jury awards, has received about 400 complaints since March on a new hot line for reporting improper solicitation by lawyers.

The so-called legal parachutists who race to accidents or disasters range from struggling lawyers just out of school to highly competent practitioners with reputations for winning millions for their clients.

Some lawyers pay tow truck and ambulance drivers and emergency room workers to hand out business cards to accident victims, a stealthy practice that is a misdemeanor in California. Others send mass mailings trying to sign up clients in neighborhoods where faulty home construction has been found. In some cities, courier services comb police records and, for a charge, provide lawyers with the names of potential clients.

To try to keep lawyers from soliciting victims of the Richmond chemical leak, the State Bar of California set up an office at a local hospital. In the hours after last month’s Amtrak crash in Alabama, that state’s bar dispatched a local prosecutor to the victims’ hotel to deter client-seeking lawyers. Some managed to approach victims anyway.

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Bar associations began using such tactics in the past decade as public indignation over ambulance chasing lawyers rose and attitudes about overt solicitation hardened.

It wasn’t always so. Abraham Lincoln is said to have solicited clients outside the courthouse. Today he could be disciplined for doing that.

“It was when lawyers became a threat to industry that they created these kinds of rules,” contends Washington, D.C., attorney John P. Coale, one of the country’s most aggressive solicitors of disaster victims.

The rules are intended to protect not only the dignity of the profession but also potential clients from facing undue pressure at times of great stress.

Most attorneys sneer at colleagues who chase accident victims, accusing them of demeaning the profession and inciting unmerited lawsuits. But others insist that efforts by bar associations to ban them from disaster scenes infringe on their constitutional rights.

“Soliciting cases at a hospital is not a very good idea because often people are medicated or in a fragile physical state,” said San Francisco plaintiffs’ attorney Kay Holley. “But I don’t think it is wrong for attorneys to go into a neighborhood and explain to people what their rights are.”

Even Harvey Saferstein, who ended his term as president of the State Bar of California last week, admitted he is “conflicted” about direct solicitation of clients, although he generally opposes it because it degrades the public image of attorneys.

“You go back 20 years ago and have some white sheriff in Mississippi go out and mow down 20 African-Americans and see a bunch of plaintiffs’ lawyers run in there and say, ‘Your families have a right to sue,’ ” said Saferstein, “and people would applaud. There is a large controversy over this.”

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Some attorneys see nothing wrong with going to an accident to collect evidence and advise victims on how to handle approaches from the prospective defendant.

After all, they say, companies send their attorneys to investigate evidence and their staff to soothe victims in the hope that they won’t sue later. Sometimes, the culpable party may try to destroy or remove evidence before the claimants’ attorneys can examine it.

“If the press didn’t pick up on it, to be honest with you, very few people who have had an attorney approach them would complain,” said Leonard Esquina, executive director of the California Trial Lawyers Assn., a plaintiffs’ attorney group. “But the press picks up on it, and other attorneys pick up on it.”

Many Richmond residents who experienced stinging eyes and other symptoms after the sulfuric acid leak were more “excited” than irritated by the attorneys who swarmed around, admitted Becks, a residents’ liaison for the county Housing Authority.

She was incensed, she said, because she was asked to sign something she had not read. She also believes she can get the chemical company to reimburse her for damage to her car without having to hire attorneys and give them 30% of her settlement.

“My position is to deal with the company first, and then if you are not satisfied, then go find an attorney,” Becks said.

In Texas, improper client solicitation has become such a problem that the state legislature recently made it a felony for lawyers to recruit clients in person, on the telephone or through a third party.

McCormack of the state bar said one south Texas attorney hired someone to pose as a Red Cross worker and enter a hospital to sign up a client. Other lawyers pay funeral home employees to tip them to potential cases. Most common, McCormack said, is the accident victim who walks in his door at home after being hospitalized and discovers his answering machine is filled with messages from lawyers.

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“Telemarketing has become very popular among folks who are improperly soliciting cases,” he said.

Some lawyers leaf through lawsuits looking for potential clients in divorce cases or search police records for names of accident victims or people arrested on drunk driving charges. They then contact them by mail, a practice that is generally allowed, although regulated by bar associations.

Defenders of the practice say the competition for such cases has driven down the fees that attorneys can charge.

It gets so competitive at police stations that some courier services working for lawyers tear out accident reports from police records to prevent other attorneys from seeing them, McCormack said.

He blames economic conditions for the proliferation of illegal solicitation, with few big law firms able to offer jobs to new attorneys.

“If you are a solo practitioner out of law school,” he said, “you are basically left to find legal business however you can. . . . For some of these lawyers, it may be the only way to make a living.”

The “very considerable increase” in improper solicitation may stem not only from more relaxed rules on lawyer advertising, said Yale law professor Geoffrey Hazard, but also from relaxation of “professional inhibitions” in lawyers and society at large.

None of this worries Coale, who has been dubbed by some media as the “Master of Disaster.” He usually finds dozens of other attorneys at the disasters he visits--notably the 1984 chemical leak at Bhopal, India; the 1986 Dupont Plaza hotel fire in Puerto Rico, and a fatal 1991 fire at a North Carolina chicken-processing plant.

In Puerto Rico, “I got all my clients from holding press conferences. In North Carolina, we sent out brochures to all the victims’ families or the victims.” When a plane crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, several years ago, he mailed “real slick, corporate-type” brochures to victims’ families.

Coale was the first U.S. attorney to arrive in Bhopal after the chemical leak at a Union Carbide plant that killed thousands and seriously injured tens of thousands. San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli had given news conferences announcing his departure for Bhopal, and “so when I got there, everybody was all primed that this savior was coming,” Coale said. “So it was, ‘Well, you’re not Belli, but you will do.’ ”

He signed up thousands of clients and gained the nickname of “Bhopal Coale” in legal circles. “To be honest, the first American to arrive was going to get everything,” Coale said. Eventually, the Indian government took over the cases and pushed the U.S. lawyers aside.

“Bar associations are upset and worried about lawyer image,” Coale said. “But surveys tell you the reason people don’t like lawyers is they don’t do a good job. If you do a good job, your clients love you.”

Some attorneys have been disciplined--punishment can range from reprimand to disbarment--and occasionally have been prosecuted for improper client solicitation.

Benton Musslewhite, a prominent Houston plaintiffs’ attorney who specializes in international disasters, was suspended from practicing law for three years after he was accused of paying non-lawyers to refer him cases, and then went to a maritime disaster in Scotland, where he gave a news conference and sent letters to victims’ families.

In California, State Bar officials say attorneys are only occasionally disciplined for improper solicitation because few people complain.

Musslewhite said he has filed a suit against the State Bar of Texas for wrongfully disciplining him. He blamed the suspension in part on other plaintiffs’ lawyers who criticized him because they were “very jealous, very materialistic and very greedy.”

None of the attorneys contacted by The Times admitted paying non-lawyers to refer cases to them, although some provided names of lawyers they said illegally deployed such “runners and cappers” to steer them business. The practice is usually barred on the grounds that non-lawyers are not qualified to refer attorneys and may take advantage of people in vulnerable conditions.

San Francisco attorney Belli, who doesn’t flinch at the ambulance-chasing label, said several nurses in a San Francisco hospital are paid by attorneys to refer accident victims to them. He doesn’t use this practice, Belli said.

Newport Beach attorney Federico Sayre said “the woods are full” of such runners in Southern California. Sayre has been approached twice by people offering to sell him cases, one of them a man who had a contact in a hospital emergency room.

An attorney Sayre knows retains runners to chase cases in various ethnic communities for 25% of the eventual settlement, he said.

“It’s done a lot within a certain circle of attorneys,” he said. “Just because you have a J. D. behind your name, you get to refer cases for a fee"--but not from the scene of a disaster--"whereas if you don’t have a J. D. behind your name, you can’t get a fee. It doesn’t make sense to me, but those are the rules.”

In Richmond, local health officials were so annoyed with some of the lawyer advertisements that they held a news conference to dispute the dangers that the attorneys were claiming the leak posed. The State Bar of California is investigating 12 cases of improper solicitation in Richmond. None of the attorneys involved have been named.

After the accident, Burlingame lawyer Clifford Blackman said he hired an off-duty police officer, a former client, to distribute leaflets advertising his law firm. Somebody helping the policeman brought the leaflets to the hospital without the firm’s knowledge, Blackman said. In the end, he said, he did not accept any cases from Richmond to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Blackman said he does not believe he is under investigation.

“I realize insurance companies send out representatives to gather witness names and information to ultimately defend themselves,” said Thomas P. Dempsey, president of the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Assn., “but I still like to think of this as a profession rather than a business.”

For lawyers who specialize in disaster, the Amtrak wreck in Alabama may be yet another boon. One victim said that in the hours after the accident, two business cards with the names of lawyers were pressed into his hand, one by a man who identified himself as a minister.

“Bhopal Coale” sent an investigator to the scene. By last week, his brochures were in the mail to victims.

Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report from Mobile, Ala.


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