Ambulance chasing in cross hairs
Testifying before the state House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, plaintiff's lawyer Bill Edwards of Corpus Christi described a person based in Hidalgo County who earned millions of dollars by referring cases to plaintiff's lawyers.
“But isn't that illegal?” asked committee member Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, himself a lawyer.
“It's illegal as the devil,” Edwards said. “But try to get a D.A. to take a case. Try to get a conviction.”
Edwards was among nine witnesses who addressed the committee Wednesday in a fact-finding hearing on barratry, or improper solicitation of clients by lawyers, doctors, chiropractors and other licensed professionals — popularly known as ambulance chasing.
Even though barratry is illegal, and in most cases a felony, the practice is alive and well in South Texas and beyond, in no small part because of the difficulty in policing it.
Edwards named Mauricio Celis of Corpus Christi and Willie Garcia of McAllen as prime examples of nonlawyers who became rich by referring cases to lawyers.
Although Celis was convicted last year of impersonating a lawyer and faces additional trials, Garcia's only problem is civil litigation involving firms trying to recover money they claim to have advanced him.
Edwards said barratry usually poses little risk for the lawyers or the case-runners.
“There's a lot of money involved, and it's a lot safer than drugs. You don't get shot and you don't get put in jail,” he said.
Claiming neither the State Bar of Texas, which is charged with disciplining lawyers, nor local prosecutors have proven capable of dealing with the problem, Edwards urged passage of a law making barratry punishable by civil lawsuits for up to triple damages.
“My concept is a statute that gives civil remedies for people who are affected by this type of activity,” he said.
In a rare show of harmony that triggered “Kumbaya” jokes, representatives of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and Texans for Lawsuit Reform — normally bitter adversaries — spoke in favor of strengthening barratry laws.
“We support Bill Edward's bill. We also think the Supreme Court should take over direct supervision of lawyer discipline in Texas, and we think a special prosecutor should be appointed to handle barratry cases statewide,” said Hugh Kelly, general counsel for Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
His counterpart, Mark Kincaid of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said, “We are foursquare against barratry. We support the committee's efforts.”
Only Houston plaintiff's lawyer Steve Mostyn questioned the wisdom of creating a new civil cause of action.
“The cure could be worse than the symptom. I seriously think if we put a couple of these boys in jail for five or 10 years it would slow down,” he said.
Committee Chairman Rep. Todd Hunter R-Corpus Christi, said a working group would soon be formed to explore remedies.
Among those sitting in was Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, who last year sponsored a barratry bill that died in committee. Fletcher said he is ready to try again.
“I plan on carrying the bill when it gets resolved in the next legislative session,” he said.