By Trevor Bach
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Accident victims with broken legs or arms bring in particularly good settlements. "A broken bone," Rangel muses, "we're talking $30,000, $40,000."
"There was something like that that came in last week, in a car wreck," Rodriguez offers.
"There you go," Rangel says. "Keep your eyes open. All you gotta do is do it for yourself and don't tell anyone. So they don't get jealous. I've got a young woman who's been doing this for me since '86."
"That's a long time," Rodriguez notes. "Too bad I didn't hear about this before."
"It's never too late," he says. "When you earn your first $800, you'll see that what I'm saying is true. It's really easy. It's really easy."
Once again Rangel brags about other insurance company employees he has working for him. "The people who are doing this don't want to leave the insurance companies because they have insurance [coverage] and health [benefits] and the money that they earn with the lawyers because they give us a lot of clients," Rangel says. "It's good for them there. They're well connected."
Being well connected can make a person wealthy, Rangel explains as he gives Rodriguez an impromptu lesson in the merits of networking. She can contact her friends, he suggests, and tell them she'll give them $100 for any cases they pass along to her. She then passes them on to Rangel, collects the $200 fee from him, and splits it with her friend. "You can franchise if you want," he tells her. "You get people to work for you."
All sorts of people come into contact with accident victims, people who could refer cases to her. Rangel offers a few hypotheticals. "You work there [at the insurance company], but say you have a friend who works in a towing company, another in a body shop, another in a hospital, another in an ambulance," he says. "Or if you have a cop that's a friend of yours. I'm just giving you ideas. Use your imagination."
John Askins didn't need to use his imagination when he first heard the tapes of the Rodriguez-Rangel conversations, which began in late 1990 and continued into the following year. An investigator in the fraud unit of the Florida Department of Insurance since 1978, Askins is well versed in the ways of runners. "They've been around for decades," he says. "You can go back to the Fifties, when there were grand juries and investigations focusing on ambulance-chasing attorneys working in cahoots with doctors and medical clinics to solicit primarily auto accident victims. Today they will turn a minor fender-bender into a $10,000 claim. That is really the crux of the problem with ambulance-chasing attorneys and their so-called runners. To keep the money flowing, they turn a very minor fender-bender into a fraudulent insurance claim.
"The key to everything is that this is done on a contingency-fee basis," Askins continues. "You wouldn't be able to talk people into this if they had to pay the lawyer to represent them. We've worked too many cases where we know exactly what they say. The attorney or the runner will tell people, 'Don't worry that you're not injured, we have doctors that will say you are injured. Just go there and you'll make a lot of money. It won't cost you anything and everybody wins.'
"Generally," Askins adds, "if people were really injured, they would go to a doctor first. But we have too many people who go to a lawyer first. And once they get you, the doctors in Miami who will say you have a permanent disability when you don't are literally a dime a dozen. That is what they do. These are not real doctors to us. Your personal physician would not get involved in something like this. It's just a fraud."
In addition to the possibility of fraud, the very act of soliciting a client for a lawyer is illegal. It is a felony in the State of Florida for an attorney, either in person or through an intermediary, to solicit clients. Yet it is an exceedingly difficult crime to detect. "I think the vast majority of solicitations go unreported," states Tony Boggs, director of lawyer regulation for the Florida Bar. "I suspect we don't know how much is going on out there. Most of the time the solicitations occur between two individuals, and that's as far as the knowledge of the solicitation goes. The lawyer isn't about to confess, and most of the time the person solicited is not offended, or at least so offended that they turn the lawyer in."
Worse, adds Askins, the person being solicited is likely to go along with the lawyer's plans. "The overwhelming majority of cases we never hear about," he says. "If the person tells the runner to get out of their face, they don't know to call us. They don't know who we are or where we are. Or the people are successfully solicited and now they are part of the problem. They are going along with making what are usually fraudulent claims. They have a vested interest. And if we approach them, they have been told by their new attorney not to talk to anyone in law enforcement."