By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Attorneys who solicit clients generally fall into two categories. The first is made up of lawyers and runners who bring in dozens and dozens of minor fender-benders and take the few thousand dollars they can squeeze out of each one. Over the course of a year, these cases can add up to big money. "They work on volume," fraud investigator Askins explains. "And they have to settle each claim as quickly and as hassle-free as possible. You won't find these people at the courthouse; they don't know the way. If something goes to court, they farm it out to another lawyer who is a trial lawyer." Raymond, the former runner, affirms Askins's assessment. "There are attorneys who couldn't survive without people like us," he says. "Tax attorneys, real estate attorneys don't know anything about handling personal injury cases and they rely on their runners to just run the show and then hand them the checks."
The second category consists of attorneys who play the litigator's version of the lottery by looking for one or two big cases a year, cases that will generate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in contingency fees. "We had a case several years ago where a truck hit a school bus filled with retarded children," Askins recalls. "It was up in northern Florida, and a couple of the children were killed and others were severely injured. And these poor family members were hounded by lawyers across the state. Miami lawyers were going up there, calling. They come out of the woodwork on a case like that. It is just ghoulish behavior. They give me the creeps. They're not attorneys, they're vultures."
Not surprisingly, attorneys aren't fond of the term "vulture," just as runners prefer to use other labels. "He doesn't say, 'I'm a runner,' or 'I'm an ambulance chaser,'" Askins says. "He calls himself a paralegal, or an office manager, or an investigator, or a legal assistant." And sometimes he calls himself Dad.
Miami attorney Brett Panter had a unique relationship with the "investigator" in his law office -- it was his father, Norman, an electrician with an abundance of pride in his son and a yen to dabble as a private eye.
On September 10, 1988, when John Wayne Gough was accidentally run over and killed by a street sweeper in North Miami, the elder Panter apparently decided the man's grieving widow needed a good attorney, someone with the skills of his son Brett. In the days following the accident, Norman Panter began his campaign. Looking for leads to reach the wife, Norman Panter contacted the funeral director in Mobile, Alabama, where Gough's body had been flown for burial. Panter also made at least five phone calls to various family members and sent flowers to the funeral service. Finally, during one of his random calls to the house in Mobile, he reached Gough's widow.
According to Leigh Ann Gough, Norman Panter was very mysterious on the phone. He refused to give her his last name, identifying himself as only "Norman from Norman Investigation." He said he was a private investigator and that he had discovered two crucial witnesses to the accident. "He played on that," Gough would later say. "He kept calling and telling us, 'We have somebody who saw it,' and at the time of the accident that was very important to me. I wanted to talk to somebody who had seen my husband when he was killed."
How Norman Panter heard about the case is uncertain, but Gough's family believes he read about it in the paper. Brett Panter would later say his father received a phone call from someone -- though neither he nor his father could recall the person's name -- who was supposedly calling on behalf of the family. The Gough family says that is ridiculous as they had already hired an attorney to investigate the accident.
So brazen and offensive was Norman Panter's conduct that family members decided to set up a sting operation. The family agreed to meet with Panter in Miami to see if indeed he had any information about the accident that neither the police nor their own attorney hadn't already discovered. The family was expecting only Norman Panter to attend, but at the prescribed hour the investigator showed up with his son in tow. (The elder Panter, however, still refused to divulge his last name, and it was weeks before the family learned that Brett Panter was his son.)
According to sworn statements of family members present at the meeting, Norman said he would only reveal the identities of the mystery witnesses if they hired Brett Panter's law firm to handle the case. Brett Panter later contended that even though he was sitting next to his father during the entire meeting, he did not hear this offer. Instead Brett Panter says he made his own presentation to the family; he showed them a binder filled with information about a case he had successfully settled involving the death of an English sailor.
The family was shocked by the scrapbook, which included graphic pictures of the sailor at the site of the accident and a host of financial records. "The pictures upset me," Leigh Ann Gough would later say. She also wondered whether someday, if Brett Panter had become their attorney, he would be passing around a scrapbook with photographs of John Gough's corpse and attached financial records. The book presentation was the last straw. The deceased man's brother got up and began shouting at Norman and Brett Panter. "Why are you sending flowers to my family?" Ray Gough yelled as other family members physically restrained him from attacking the attorney and his father. "Why are you harassing my family?"