It's considered one of the oldest and most unethical practices some attorneys still engage in. Now, a growing problem catching accident victims off guard within days or sometimes just hours after a car crash. "It's unseedy and that's where the term ambulance chaser comes from as you're aware" says former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee.
Only it seems the so called "ambulance chasers" have stepped up their game with better technology and other resources. Godbee says around Metro Detroit, it's now open season on cell phone numbers and people's other personal info.
An accident victim who asks to be called by "Derrick", says he got a phone call within 24 hours of being hit behind the wheel. His accident happened on Detroit's west side in April, and the man on the phone promised to help. "They had transportation to take me to get treated for my injuries and there would be a lawyer present" says Derrick. He says his immediate reaction was to wonder how they got his number.
Another victim, says she asked the same question when it happened to her. "Kimberly" says calls began after her first and only wreck near the Southfield freeway a few weeks ago. She says "They just told me they found me through a scanner. Me being my first time, I went with them."
Both victims have since learned those calls broke a state law against solicitation. A law punishable by jail time and up to $60,000 in fines. Attorney Daniel Romano explains "As a person that's hurt or seeking an attorney, you have the absolute right to choose your lawyer."
As a lawyer practicing for more than 20 years, Romano says he suspects cops, EMS workers, even hospital workers could be turning over personal info to some other attorneys. "I don't even think they're chasing the ambulance, I think sometimes the ambulance is involved in the solicitation" says Romano. He adds, "When you're in the hospital, I've had clients visited by lawyers without solicitation prior. They'll just show up and start talking about their case and have signing papers."
Godbee says even worse, info from police reports is routinely kept in a database accessible by any number of people. Some may not even realize they're breaking the law. "Ignorance is not an excuse, but an officer may not be aware that to do that you are violating the law. But, it could be as nefarious as some attorneys paying to get this information from the inside" says Godbee.
"We are getting people solicited the day the accident happens, often within an hour or minutes of the accident" says Romano. He adds "It happens in cases where there is no police report, when they go directly to the hospital. Or when they don't go to the hospital, there's just a police report."
Romano says countless firms are engaging in the illegal practices. Derrick and Kimberly say those soliciting lawyers sent them to get medical treatment at high priced health clinics, then referred their cases elsewhere. They've since fired the other firms. "You're thinking that they're helping you, but they're actually gaining from the solicitation" says Derrick.
Kimberly says her advice is not to be filled by predators who talk a good game. "Don't jump into nothing if someone calls you and says I want to represent you. No. Find your own lawyer" she says. Romano agrees, adding "If you get a call from someone directly saying they are from a law office, or work for one or a doctor that will get you to a lawyer, hang up the phone."
Both Derrick and Kimberly have hired new attorneys. In the meantime, Derrick has filed a complaint with the attorney grievance commission. They wouldn't comment specifically on the case, but promise to fully investigate all complaints. We also checked with the Wayne County Prosecutor, who says they've never charged an attorney criminally for this.