Though "Akiva" was only a recent Russian immigrant who had no medical training whatsoever, he owned three personal injury clinics in Brooklyn.
On a July afternoon he sat behind his desk, turned up the radio, reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a manila folder full of new police reports. He placed a large yellow sticky note on each, and moved the first report across the desk to my friend, another newly admitted lawyer trying to break into the lucrative practice of personal injury law.
"This one is a child with a fracture," said Akiva, "and look at the plate on the car that hit him — a livery car. Lots of coverage."
My friend wrote a figure on the sticky note — $500.00 — and then slid it back across the desk to Akiva, who wrote another figure just below that and slid it back. It read $1,250. Without saying a word, my friend wrote $800 on the note, underlined it, and handed it to Akiva. "Done," Akiva said.
My friend pulled out his firm's checkbook, filled out a check with "narrative reports" on the memo line, and handed it to Akiva. He had just bought his eighth personal injury case of the month.
Like one third of all states, New York passed a "no-fault" auto insurance law in 1973. The legislature hoped that it would cut down on litigation by injured people to recover their medical costs. Critics said that insurance that automatically provides $50,000 for medical costs would only escalate fraud and excessive litigation, as it would give a person the means to fabricate or overtreat minor injuries, and then sue.
But no one predicted that it would spawn thousands of quasi-medical clinics that have become brokers of personal injury plaintiffs, or that the $50,000 in medical coverage would be used by personal injury lawyers to fuel the explosive growth of multimillion dollar lawsuits.
According to an April 2002 report in the New York Times, the Alliance of American Insurers estimated that New York's auto insurers' payments attributable to fraud translates to $2 million per day. The fraud is not limited to no-fault states, and while the problem has spread far beyond New York, published reports show that immigrants from the former Soviet Union account for much of it.
In Louisiana, Igor Boris Razvitnov; in Texas, Slava and Elena Tretchikova; in Pennsylvania, Vadim Lyakin; in Florida, Vladimir Shats; in California, Michael Smushkevich and Bogich Jovovich.
"We have seen a rapid growth in the involvement of Russian immigrants in auto insurance fraud," says James Quiggle of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. "It represents a quick way to make a lot of money, and it doesn't require a detailed knowledge of American business practices, education, or even English language skills. There is a low barrier to entry, and it is very lucrative."
The Insurance Research Council estimated in 1998 that 40 percent of all auto insurance claims across the country involve fraud. According to Quiggle, fraudulent auto claims now cost policy holders $14 billion per year. So how is it that New York, which, like most states, caps medical payments at only $50,000, manages to lose $2 million a day in auto insurance fraud?
Through personal injury lawsuits, at which crooked, but highly disciplined, lawyers excel. Paying a personal injury clinic for new clients has become a regular business expense for many lawyers in America's large cities, where clinic owners and their networks of "runners" shepherd accident victims into clinics before they ever consult a lawyer. Once under the thrall of the clinic, the accident victims are brokered to lawyers who have no other way to get clients.
The more enterprising among America's corrupt lawyers have decided to eliminate not only the clinic operators, but the random nature of car accidents. Disbarred lawyer Ken Gottlieb, in concert with attorney Tamir Oheb, staged 56 accidents in California through the summer of 1999. The following year, Beverly Hills attorney Manny Kreitenberg was convicted for his role in a conspiracy to commit insurance fraud that reached as far as California's Department of Motor Vehicles.
A New Jersey lawyer decided upon his disbarment to go into the personal injury clinic business, and was then arrested for attempting to bribe a police officer for fake police reports.
"We have seen lawyers with Russian language ability or even a Russian lawyer's license transfer their job skills to the United States and act as a "tour guide" for new Russian immigrants looking to make money," Quiggle said. "We now have disturbing evidence that Russian organized crime is setting up new lawyers in the United States, and using them to funnel settlement money back to Russia."
Lawyers are often discussed and described — and often commonly regarded — in the most derogatory of terms; the phrase Personal Injury Lawyer conjures up the most vile of connotations for some. Unfortunately, much of this ill will is eagerly earned by the crooked personal injury lawyers who use America's courtrooms every day to keep that nagative image alive.
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994. He founded his own New York City firm in 1997, specializing in immigration law and representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He recently left the practice for the "more normal life" of insurance defense. He lives in Bergen County, N.J.