I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
These are the bottom feeders of the legal profession. They go by a variety of names: “ambulance chasers,” “cappers,” “steerers,” or “case runners.” Their job is to swoop into the site of some tragedy or other and find victims, survivors, and their families and sign them up to legal representation. It’s sleazy work and relies on using high-pressure sales techniques on people who are in shock and not in a position to make rational decisions.
Meet Willie Garcia
Wilfredo Rogelio Garcia is a wealthy man. He has owned race horses and the usual big boy toys in the shape of Bentley and Jaguar cars. He has paintings by Dali and Picasso that he can hang in the humble 8,500-square foot homestead he lives in on his 3,000-acre ranch.
He has a reputation in and around his base of south Texas that would not be envied by many people with a conscience. He is described by The San Antonio Express-News as someone who has “flown mostly below the radar while building a reputation as the biggest case-runner in Hidalgo County.”
Through his many contacts “with police, courthouse officials, funeral homes, morgues, and medical workers” he solicits clients for personal injury lawyers. The practice is called barratry and is a crime in several jurisdictions, including Texas. But, Harvard University rates legal corruption in Texas as “very common” so Mr. Garcia is not troubled by criminal charges.
He has made his fortune by signing up accident victims and their families with promises of help in getting them compensation. He then sells those clients to personal injury lawyers. Why not litigate the cases himself? Interestingly, Willie Garcia is not a lawyer.
His business is very successful and has gone global. He and his operatives scour the emergency rooms of Europe, Asia, and South America looking for clients.
Case runners are “to the magisterium of the law, what maggots are to health care - they serve a therapeutic purpose but when you look closely they’re still parasites.”
Blogger Bad Lawyer
Alton Bus Crash
In September 1989, a school bus carrying students was hit by a delivery truck. The school bus plunged off the road into a gravel pit that was filled with water. Twenty-one children died.
Within hours, lawyers and case runners were working the bereaved parents in hospitals, morgues, and funeral homes. The scramble to sign up clients was nauseating and prompted the state of Texas to indict three lawyers with barratry.
Willie Garcia, who had been schmoozing Alton bus crash families, turned up as a state’s witness to avoid prosecution. That’s the kind of guy Willie is.
Tragedy in Quebec
Lac Mégantic is a community of about 6,000 in Quebec’s east townships in Canada.
On the evening of Friday July 6, 2013 people were gathered in Musi-Café in the middle of town to unwind.
Eleven kilometres away a train of 74 tankers filled with oil products had been parked while its engineer went off duty. The train’s brakes failed and it started rolling down a grade toward Lac Mégantic. By the time it reached the town it was doing more than 100 kilometres an hour (65 mph) as it approached a curve with a 16 km/h speed limit.
The train derailed, oil came into contact with sparks and there were massive explosions. Forty-seven people died, most of them were incinerated in the Musi-Café, which was close to the derailment site. At least 30 buildings were destroyed and 115 businesses put out of action. It took several days to knock down the fire.
The Case Runners Arrive
While bodies were still being identified, American lawyers began arriving in Lac Mégantic. The railroad company whose train had crashed was the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railway based in Chicago, so litigation in the U.S. was possible.
Among the flock of attorneys that descended on Lac Mégantic was Willie Garcia. He attended information sessions for grieving families and was searching the room for clients.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) interviewed Ginette Cameron, whose daughter Geneviève died at the Musi-Café. She said Garcia was pressing her to sign up by saying “ ‘Do you want this to happen to another mother like you?’ He repeated this to me a few times.” She found the approach and sales pitch disgusting, but she signed up with the Garcia Law Group anyway. Many others did the same.
By now, Willie Garcia had his own law firm whose website has a tab for “Our Attorneys,” plural. However, the firm only had one lawyer, Willie’s daughter, Maria Luisa Garcia, self-described as “a tireless advocate for the ‘little man.’ ” However, In February 2020, the company’s website was down with no contact information, except a notice reading “Website coming soon.”
Among the several defendants in multiple lawsuits a compensation fund of $114 million was set up. Here’s the CBC again: “According to estimates done by Radio-Canada’s Enquête, the Garcia Law Group pocketed between $10 million and $15 million … despite the fact that they did very little legal work.”
Of course, Willie Garcia is just one of a horde of case runners who ply their trade among the grief-stricken. In many places, what they do is illegal but they are rarely brought to account.
- According to its website “The Garcia Law Group, PLLC is a personal injury firm built on the ideals of integrity, honesty, empathy, and justice.”
- The technical term for case runners is barrators and they’ve been around for centuries. In his Inferno, Dante placed barrators in the Eighth Circle of Hell.
- The Axa Insurance Company says (March 2016) that “ambulance-chasing lawyers” make 12 million cold calls a day in the United Kingdom trying to persuade people to sue businesses for compensation.
“If you want to find one (a case runner), all you have to do is let an 18-wheeler slam into you. As soon as the police report comes out (and sometimes before that) case runners crawl out from under their rocks to try to get your business. These people, and the lawyers who use them, do as much damage to victim’s rights as any tort reform bill, no matter how ill-conceived.”
Lawyer Lloyd Bemis, Austin, Texas
- “Firms Gave Millions to South Texas Case-runner.” John MacCormack, My San Antonio, December 5, 2009.
- “Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the Corruption in America Survey.” Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, Harvard Center for Ethics, December 1, 2014.
- “Questionable Texas Law Firm Pockets Millions from Lac-Mégantic Compensation Fund.” Sylvie Fournier and Gil Shochat, CBC News, March 15, 2017.
- “Nuisance Calls by ‘Ambulance Chasers’ Soar Despite Attempts at Crackdown.” Victoria Ward, The Telegraph, March 21, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 24, 2017:
Some of these ambulance chasers even own the tow truck that tows the damaged vehicles. It is really a high-end for profit business. Thanks for explaining it.