The term “ambulance chaser” is often used as a catchall stereotype of personal injury attorneys. Lawyers who follow ambulances to the scene of an accident or to a hospital, harassing victims and their families with hopes of signing them up as clients.
While ambulance chasing attorneys do (I’m certain) exist, the actual people that engage in this type of behavior – sometimes referred to as barratry – are very rarely licensed attorneys. These societal banes are known as “case runners“.
What Is a Case Runner?
There are many phrases used which refer to these people: “case runner”, “capper,” “solicitors,” “steerers,” or colloquially, an “ambulance chaser.” Those who have dealt with these people before know them by another name: bottom feeders. A car accident is not the only place where these people have been known to show themselves either. Any time a natural disaster occurs, these people will show up in an attempt to find business for the doctor or lawyer whom they “represent” and tell you to go to them for services.
It has been noted that runners will make informants out of hospital staff, police department employees or even tow truck drivers who give out the personal information of accident victims. It’s unclear how often this occurs, but it is akin to drug smugglers having informants within the DEA, and if true, creates a maelstrom of problems for those just trying to recover from their injuries and recoup the damages they caused.
There are other ways for them to find your information as well and they don’t always involve the use of a third party. They keep track of police scanners and are able to access police reports, which by law are deemed as public information. With these they can see your address and/or phone number, then make contact and try to persuade you to take your case to their attorney or health care professional.
Is Case Running or Ambulance chasing Illegal?
Case running – and therefore ambulance chasing – is illegal in 21 states in the U.S. and in Washington D.C. Here is a rundown of the laws:
|State||Year Enacted||Illegal?||Language of the Law||Penalties|
|Arizona||2005||Yes||It is a fraudulent practice and unlawful for a person to knowingly Employ, use or act as a runner, capper or steerer for the purposes of violating paragraph 1 of this subsection.||N/A|
|Arkansas||2005||Yes||“Runner, capper, or steerer” means a person who for pecuniary benefit, whether directly or indirectly, or in cash or in kind, procures or attempts to procure a client, patient, or customer at the direction of, request of, or in cooperation with a provider whose intent is to seek to obtain benefits under a contract of insurance or assert a claim against an insured or an insurer for providing services to the client, patient, or customer.||Class A misdemeanor (1 year county jail)|
|California||2011||Yes||It is unlawful for: (1) Any person, in an individual capacity or in a capacity as a public or private employee, or for any firm, corporation, partnership or association to act as a runner or capper for any attorneys or to solicit any business for any attorneys in and about the state prisons, county jails, city jails, city prisons, or other places of detention of persons, city receiving hospitals, city and county receiving hospitals, county hospitals, superior courts, or in any public institution or in any public place or upon any public street or highway or in and about private hospitals, sanitariums or in and about any private institution or upon private property of any character whatsoever||1 year county jail or fine of > $15,000|
|Colorado||N/A||No||A law against this has been discussed, but nothing passed||N/A|
|Connecticut||2015||Yes||The law makes it a crime to solicit a person to instigate litigation or steer a party to hire a certain attorney or provider for the purpose of receiving compensation. It is also a crime to receive or accept payment for the prosecution of a claim or referring a prospective client to an attorney. Additionally, anyone who employs such a person commits a crime||Up to 3 years in jail or $5,000 fine|
|Florida||2011||Yes||It shall be unlawful for any person or her or his agent, employee or any person acting on her or his behalf, to solicit or procure through solicitation either directly or indirectly legal business, or to solicit or procure through solicitation a retainer, written or oral, or any agreement authorizing an attorney to perform or render legal service, or to make it a business to solicit or procure such business, retainers or agreements||1 year of prison|
|Georgia||2014||Yes||Any insurance company or agent or employee thereof who provides referrals or recommendations to its insureds; or A practitioner or health care service provider who procures clients, patients, or customers through the use of public media or by referrals or recommendations from other practitioners or health care service providers.||1st offense: 30 days prison and $1,000 fine. 2nd offense: 10 years and $100,000 fine|
|Iowa||N/A||No||Mention of ambulance chasing can be found as far back as 1915, however, no law pertaining to its illegality was apparent.||N/A|
|Kansas||2012||Yes||The attorney general may censure, limit, condition, suspend or revoke a license issued under this act if, after notice and opportunity for hearing in accordance with the provisions of the Kansas administrative procedure act, the attorney general determines that the licensee or, if the licensee is an organization, any of its officers, directors, partners or associates has: acted as a runner or capper for any attorney||Revocation of attorney’s license|
|Kentucky||2013||Yes||To prohibit solicitation of a person involved in a motor vehicle accident by a health care provider or the provider’s intermediary for the purpose of obtaining basic reparation benefits, specify the acts prohibited by a healthcare provider, within the first 30 days of an accident||N/A|
|Louisiana||2010||Yes||A person who, for monetary benefits or other considerations, procures or attempts to procure business at the direction of, request of, or in cooperation with a licensee by means of deceit, trick, fraud or misleading statements.||Revocation of attorney’s license|
|Massachusetts||N/A||Yes||In soliciting professional employment, a lawyer shall not coerce or harass a prospective client and shall not make a false or misleading communication||N/A|
|Michigan||2014||Yes||A person shall not intentionally contact any individual that the person knows has sustained a personal injury as a direct result of a motor vehicle accident, or an immediate family member of that individual, with a direct solicitation to provide a service until the expiration of 30 days after the date of that motor vehicle accident. – See more at: http://www.plunkettcooney.com/publications-400.html#sthash.ALilNpOc.dpuf||$30,000 fine 1st offense, 1 year prison and $60,000 fine 2nd offense|
|Minnesota||2015||Yes||“Runner,” “capper,” or “steerer” means a person who for a pecuniary gain directly procures or solicits prospective patients through telephonic, electronic, or written communication, or in-person contact, at the direction of, or in cooperation with, a health care provider when the person knows or has reason to know that the provider’s purpose is to perform or obtain services or benefits under or relating to a contract of motor vehicle insurance.||3 years prison and/or $6,000 fine|
|Mississippi||N/A||Yes||It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, partnership, corporation, group, organization, or association, either incorporated or unincorporated, either before or after proceedings commenced: to solicit, request, or donate, any money, bank note, bank check, chose in action, personal services, or any other personal or real property, or any other thing of value, or any other assistance as an inducement to any person to commence or to prosecute further, or for the purpose of assisting such person to commence or prosecute further, any proceeding in any court or before any administrative board or other agency, regardless of jurisdiction||1 year prison|
|Nebraska||Bill Introduced – Indefinitely Postponed||Yes||It shall be unlawful for a practitioner, 22 directly or through a paid intermediary, to solicit a client, 23 patient, or customer for financial benefit within thirty days after a 24 motor vehicle accident involving the client, patient, or customer||$1,000 for each violation|
|Nevada||1997||Yes||A person commits insurance fraud if he knowingly and [willfully:] with the intent to defraud, for pecuniary gain or to deprive another person of property: Employs a runner, capper or steerer to procure clients, patients or other persons to perform or obtain services or benefits under a policy of insurance issued pursuant to this Title for the purpose of engaging in any activity prohibited by this section.||1-4 years prison and $5,000 fine|
|New Jersey||2015||Yes||A person is guilty of the crime of insurance fraud if that person: for pecuniary gain, for himself or another, he directly or indirectly solicits any person or practitioner to engage, employ or retain either himself or any other person to manage, adjust or prosecute any claim or cause of action, against any person, for damages for negligence, or, for pecuniary gain, for himself or another, directly or indirectly solicits other persons to bring causes of action to recover damages for personal injuries or death, or for pecuniary gain, for himself or another, directly or indirectly solicits other persons to make a claim for personal injury protection benefits||Civil penalties (undefined)|
|Oklahoma||2015||Yes||No attorney shall, by means of an agent, runner, capper, steerer, or other person who is not an attorney, solicit or procure a person to employ the attorney to present, compromise, or settle a claim under the workers’ compensation laws of this state.||$2,500 fine for each offense|
|Pennsylvania||2012||Yes||A fraudulent insurance act includes, but is not limited to, acts or omissions committed by any person who knowingly, and with an intent to injure, defraud, or deceive: Employs, uses, or acts as a runner, capper, or steerer with the intent to falsely or fraudulently obtain benefits under a contract of insurance or to falsely or fraudulently assert a claim against an insured or an insurer for providing services to the client, patient, or customer.||N/A|
|Texas||2011||Yes||Any contract for legal services is voidable by the client if it is procured as a result of conduct violating the laws of this state or the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of Texas regarding barratry by attorneys or other persons.||$10,000 fine|
|Utah||2006||Yes||A person commits a fraudulent insurance act if that person with intent to deceive or defraud: knowingly employs, uses, or acts as a runner for the purpose of committing a fraudulent insurance act||Civil penalties, restitution, cost of enforcement|
|Virginia||1960||Yes||It shall be unlawful for any person, corporation, partnership or association to act as a runner or capper to solicit any business for * * * an attorney at law or such person, partnership, corporation, organization or association, in and about the State prisons, county jails, city jails, city prisons, or other places of detention of persons, city receiving hospitals, city and county receiving hospitals, county hospitals, police courts, * * * county courts, municipal courts, * * * courts of record, or in any public institution or in any public place or upon any public street or highway or in and about private hospitals, sanitariums or in and about any private institution or upon private property of any character whatsoever.||N/A|
|Wyoming||N/A||No||Mention of ambulance chasing can be found as far back as 1920, however, no law pertaining to its illegality was apparent.||N/A|
|Washington, D.C||2006||Yes||The Act makes it unlawful for “practitioner[s]” to solicit business from “a client, patient, or customer within 21 days of a motor vehicle accident with the intent to seek benefits under a contract of insurance or to assert a claim against an insured, a governmental entity, or an insurer on behalf of any person arising out of the accident.||N/A|
What should be noted is that, while case running and ambulance chasing practices aren’t inherently illegal in every state, they are absolutely against Bar Association ethics across the United States.
The American Bar Association lays in their Code of Professional Ethics the parameters by which attorneys should live by in this regard. In Canon 28, it says that it is disreputable to employ agents or runners for the purpose of bringing a lawsuit. If a lawyer violates this canon, they can be disbarred. The ethics apply to every lawyer, but less than half of the states have laws specifically pertaining to runners and cappers. When it comes to the difference between advertising and solicitation, however, this is not so clear.
For lawyers and personal injury attorneys, it’s a very fine line to walk. Parameters for allowable advertising were defined by the Supreme Court in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona(1977). In the case, two lawyers had placed an ad in their local paper to highlight their firm. The State Bar of Arizona took it to trial and suspended them for six months, and the lawyers appealed on the grounds that the ruling violated the Sherman Antitrust Act as well as the First Amendment. The Supreme Court sided with the lawyers in a 5-4 decision, stating in part that advertising would not hurt the judicial process and would supply consumers with valuable information.
In terms of initiating contact, different states have different sets of rules. For example, in Massachusetts, if you call the lawyer first, this still does not give that lawyer permission to make in-person contact. However, the opposite is true in Rhode Island. So if you’re feeling harassed by a lawyer, even if you made the first contact, there usually laws against this type of solicitation in every state, even if there aren’t laws specifically against running or ambulance chasing.
The main thing to remember here is that the advertisement was indirect and not made as a result of an accident or disaster. Where the ambulance chasing scenario comes in is that they seek out the victims to personally harass them about using the attorney’s or doctor’s for whom they are running for services. That’s how you know you are dealing with the bottom feeder of the law. If you are sought out, and the initial contact between a law firm and you is made by someone representing that firm, then you are dealing with a runner. It could be a phone call, letter, email or an in-person visit, it doesn’t matter the form of communication, if they contact you first, they are likely a runner.
What Should I Do If I’m Contacted By a Runner?
Many lawsuits, even in states where no ambulance chasing laws are clearly defined, have been filed against runners and cappers. This is always a potential course of action if you are contacted by one of these people, but whether a lawsuit comes out of it or not, the best first step you have is to report it. Try and ascertain as much information as you can – who the runner represents, or his name – and alert law enforcement, or perhaps another lawyer whom you trust.
However, one such lawsuit in Kentucky actually ruled in favor of the solicitor, with the judge saying that the prohibition of this practice was in violation of commercial free speech rights. Usually, even if solicitation is allowed, there is a 30-day protection from such solicitation, which could feel like harassment in the eyes of the person on the receiving end, but that is a specific part of the law that was struck down in Kentucky. So while the practice is generally regarded as bush league by most lawyers and the public, it is still done in much of the country.
Why would a law firm prey on accident victims in this manner? Well, it’s pretty simple; they want to make money. And personal injury cases tend to be worth the most more often than not because the “damages” incurred in the accident – such as emotional ones – are moldable and can earn the plaintiff, and subsequently their attorney, a lot of money. But one note to be made is that not all personal injury lawyers are ambulance chasers; most can provide expert advice and take great pride in seeing that you are compensated fully for damages or injuries in an accident.