High-profile lawyer’s arrest highlights ongoing ‘ambulance chasing’ problem

The arrest of a prominent personal injury attorney from Houston who has an office in McAllen is bringing the lingering problem of barratry, or ambulance chasing, back into the light.

Federal authorities arrested Jeffrey Stern Aug. 20 after obtaining a 21-count indictment against the Houston-based attorney alleging a long-running criminal scheme involving tax evasion and barratry, the illegal practice of paying kickbacks to “case runners” who solicit clients for an attorney.

In Texas, soliciting the victim of an accident in person or by phone within 30 days of the accident is illegal. The people who often do this are called “case runners,” says J. Gonzalez, a McAllen personal injury attorney.

“You’ve got certain ethical standards you must abide by, and these individuals, who don’t have to abide by those rules and don’t have all that requisite training … are benefiting without having proper licenses or training and without having to fulfill those ethical requirements,” Gonzalez said.

The scam involves the insurance, medical and legal industries.

“Often times, what they’ll do, is pass themselves off as insurance agents or adjusters,” Gonzalez said. “They say I’m calling from All State and want to help with car repairs and getting medical treatment.”

The medical, legal and insurance industries all have sets of ethical standards, licenses needed to practice and regulatory bodies that set rules and can discipline professionals who violate the rules, even revoking licenses.

“These runners don’t have to abide by those rules,” Gonzalez said.

And according to Gonzalez, barratry happens every day in the Rio Grande Valley.

“You see news reports and articles about fraudulent practices, whether it’s fake coupons at H-E-B or people calling and pretending that they are somebody who they are not,” he said. “I’m thinking why does nobody talk about the biggest scam that has gone on for decades in the Valley involving multi-millions.”

Even though it’s a crime, people aren’t often arrested and prosecuted for it, like in the case of Stern, the accused attorney from Houston. There are several reasons for that, according to Gonzalez.

“People stay quiet and don’t report,” he said.

The other reason is because compared to violent crime and property crime, barratry isn’t really at the top of the list for law enforcement, according to Gonzalez.

“This is not something primarily on their priority list. It’s not something they say is our most important goal to stop these runners because it’s not high on their priority list, or the DA’s. It’s something that basically just goes un-investigated,” Gonzalez said. “Even the State Bar will admit to you that … we have bigger fish to fry.”

That’s why Gonzalez believes it’s important to keep the conversation about the illegal practice of barratry alive, so individuals who might find themselves on the other end of a phone call just days after being in an accident from someone trying to hook them up with a lawyer, insurance agent or a doctor can know that that person is committing a crime.

“For me, in life, education and information is key,” Gonzalez said. “Knowledge is power.”