Attorneys who ambulance chase, i.e. unlawfully ‘solicit’ business from car accident victims, could forfeit their attorney fee or face an ethics inquiry if a complaint is filed against them by a client or an injured person’s service provider
The practice of illegal attorney solicitation in Michigan has reached epidemic levels in recent years. In some cities, such as Detroit, the practice of personal injury attorneys hiring non-lawyers to illegally contact car accident victims has become increasingly common. This has led to a sharp increase in No Fault PIP fraud and small provider lawsuits
On January 31st, a shocking story was reported by the Detroit Free Press about one Metro Detroit-area TV lawyer accused of having his non-lawyer “investigator” solicit legal business from a car accident victim who was still in a hospital bed. This investigator had reportedly been paid half a million dollars by this law firm.
Did you know you don’t have to pay your attorney his fees if you have been unlawfully solicited in your car accident case by either that attorney or a non-lawyer who contacted you on his behalf?
- A “contract” for attorney fees in a “personal injury” case is “void” if it is the “result” of unlawful solicitation. (MCL 750.410(1))
- The attorney-fee “agreement” between the lawyer and the client is “wholly void if such professional employment was solicited by the [lawyer], or by any other person acting on his behalf or at his request …” (MCL 600.919(2))
In particular, the FREEP noted: “Under state law, attorney fees [for an ambulance chasing lawyer] are voided if a client was found to be improperly solicited.”
Another important fact – one that was not, unfortunately, reported on by the FREEP – is that lawyers who unlawfully solicit cases from car accident victims could be subject to the following sanctions because they are breaking the law in Michigan:
- A criminal, misdemeanor conviction.
- “Imprisonment” of up to one year.
- Fines up to $60,000.
- “Disciplinary” action that could result in a law license suspension or, even, disbarment.
As I have written previously on the pages of this Auto Lawyer’s Blog:
“‘Ambulance chasing’ lawyers are calling people within days and sometimes even hours of a car accident all over Metro Detroit. They use harassing, pressuring, and misleading tactics. These lawyers are taking advantage of hundreds of car accident victims, and they work in cahoots with crooked medical providers and clinics to bill auto No Fault insurance for medical care, increasing the costs of car insurance for everyone. These lawyers are breaking the law, and they are a menace in Michigan and an ugly blight on the entire legal profession.”
What should you do now if you’ve been the victim of unlawful, attorney solicitation?
If an “ambulance chasing” lawyer has tried to unlawfully solicit your legal business, or hired a non-lawyer to do so at his or her behalf, then you should contact the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission here.
I have been a critic of the Attorney Grievance Commission for its delay and inaction in confronting attorney auto accident solicitation. I have written that rules that go unpunished become merely suggestions. I have watched this illegal and unethical practice by some lawyers spread over the last ten years in this state. Finally, at least according to the FREEP story, this issue has reached the attention of those responsible for policing the legal profession and for protecting the public from unethical attorneys.
If you have been solicited, or if you provide attendant care or replacement services for someone who was injured in an automobile accident who was illegally solicited, then you should submit a request for investigation with the Attorney Grievance Commission.
Below, I’ll discuss in greater detail both the laws prohibiting and defining unlawful solicitation and the penalties for violating those laws.
No ambulance chasing of car accident victims
In 2013, Michigan enacted an “ambulance chasing” law (which took effect on January 1, 2014) that outlawed attorney solicitation of car accident victims by lawyers and non-lawyers working on their behalf.
Specifically, the anti-solicitation imposed the following criminal prohibitions:
Lawyers and non-lawyers working on their behalf are prohibited from contacting car accident victims [i.e., “any individual … [who] has sustained a personal injury as a direct result of a motor vehicle accident”] or their family members “with a direct solicitation” of the victims’ legal business during the first “30 days after the date of [the victims’] motor vehicle accident.” (MCL 750.410b(1))
The law defines “direct solicitation” as:
“[A] verbal or written solicitation or offer, including by electronic means, made to the injured individual or a family member seeking to provide a service for a fee or other remuneration that is based upon the knowledge or belief that the individual has sustained a personal injury as a direct result of a motor vehicle accident and that is directed toward that individual or a family member.” (MCL 750.410b(2)(a))
Unlawful attorney solicitation of personal injury victims in Michigan
In personal injury cases, Michigan law prohibits lawyers and non-lawyers working on their behalf from:
“[D]irectly or indirectly … solicit[ing] a person injured as the result of an accident … for the purpose of representing that person in making a claim for damages or prosecuting an action or causes of action arising out of a personal injury claim against any other person, firm, or corporation …” (MCL 750.410(1))
Although the criminal penalties for unlawful solicitation of a personal injury victim are serious (a fine up to $750 or “imprisonment for not more than 6 months”), the real punishment strikes at the ambulance-chasing lawyer’s bottom-line:
“A contract entered into as a result of such a solicitation is void.” (MCL 750.410(1))
That means the soliciting lawyer is prohibited from collecting his or her attorney fees.
In cases that have already been settled and where money was disbursed to the client and/or service providers, there is a valid legal claim that these victims of illegal attorney solicitation can assert to recover the portion of their settlement that went to the attorney as his or her contingent fee in the case.
Solicitation voids attorney’s fee agreement
In all cases involving the “prosecution or defense of any claim,” the attorney-fee “agreement” between the lawyer and client is:
“[W]holly void if such professional employment was solicited by the [lawyer], or by any other person acting on his behalf or at his request …” (MCL 600.919(2))
Ethical rules against attorney solicitation
The Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) impose the following restriction on attorney solicitation:
“A lawyer shall not solicit professional employment from a prospective client with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s pecuniary gain.” (MRPC 7.3(a))