Personal injury attorneys don’t have the world’s best reputation. Most are honest, but a few engage in unethical and even illegal behavior in the pursuit of more clients. The tactics these attorneys use give a bad name to good lawyers and make it more difficult for injured clients to exercise their legal rights.
These actions range from the simple (misleading advertising) to the complex (schemes that use intentional accidents to generate lawsuit settlements). But perhaps the most pervasive is also one of the best known: ambulance chasing. It happens when a lawyer solicits business from an injury victim within a short time after the accident, usually with the goal of increasing profits by signing as many clients as possible.
Unethical personal injury lawyers may chase potential clients at hospitals, doctors’ offices or accident scenes. Ambulance chasing typically involves high-pressure tactics designed to convince vulnerable accident victims to retain legal counsel immediately, whether or not they’re in the proper state of mind to make such a decision and often regardless of the legal merits of their situations.
A particularly egregious form of ambulance chasing involves the use of so-called “runners,” non-lawyers who solicit potential clients on lawyers’ behalf. Anyone who isn’t an attorney can be a runner, but they’re often healthcare professionals who receive kickbacks for referring injured patients to lawyers.
Solicitation by runner is a crime in Georgia and some other states. Two attorneys were disbarred in November for using 46 runners between 1995 and 1999 (the disciplinary action took several years to work its way through litigation). The lawyers were punished under professional ethics rules rather than criminal law, but the Georgia Supreme Court cited their violation of the anti-runner criminal statute in its decision.
Even the more direct form of ambulance chasing, in which the lawyers do the soliciting themselves, can lead to disbarment or jail. Several states make it a crime for lawyers to stir up groundless lawsuits in search of money, a prohibition that can cover many instances of ambulance chasing. Georgia had a similar statute on its books, but it was repealed in 2006.
The ethics rules enforced by state bar associations generally prohibit lawyers from soliciting potential clients in any form aside from advertising. There are exceptions, but even then attorneys cannot harass potential clients, coerce them into accepting representation, or solicit them against their expressed wishes.
Georgia attorneys can be disbarred for any solicitation of clients by telephone or in person. Written solicitation is OK, but it must not target vulnerable people or those who’ve asked not to be solicited, and it must not be sent to any accident victim or wrongful death survivor within 30 days after the accident or death.
There are laws and ethics rules in place to prevent ambulance chasing, and most personal injury lawyers obey them. Those who do not, only endanger their licenses and even their freedom. They often do harm to their clients, who are pushed to obtain legal representation, and then to sue, without time to consider their best interests. Staying away from this kind of lawyer is one of the most important moves someone who has been injured can make.