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Representatives of a Chicago law firm posed as American Red Cross grief counselors to gain access to relatives of the victims of a Chalk’s Ocean Airways crash in Miami, according to complaints filed with the Florida and Illinois bars. As a result of the complaints, the Florida Bar is also investigating a West Palm Beach-based law firm for possible violations of bar rules in its solicitation of the Bahamian relatives of passengers who were killed in the Chalk’s seaplane crash. The alleged misconduct also could violate a federal law intended to protect the families of plane crash victims from being approached by lawyers immediately after the death of their relatives. The bar complaints were filed Jan. 3 by Miami lawyer John Ruiz, who represents relatives of one of the crash victims. He contends that lawyers for the Rose Law Firm of West Palm Beach and the Chicago-based Nolan Law Group used improper client-solicitation tactics. According to the complaint, lawyers from the firms posed as psychiatrists and Red Cross volunteers and knocked on the doors of the grieving families in Bimini as early as the day of the crash. If the alleged conduct took place on U.S. soil, it would violate a federal law governing the solicitation of potential plane crash clients. Chalk’s Ocean Airways Flight 101 went down on takeoff Dec. 19, killing all 18 passengers and two pilots. Two crash victims’ relatives who are clients of Ruiz’s say they were improperly approached by representatives of the two law firms. The Rose Law Firm did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. Thomas Ellis, a spokesman for the Nolan Law Group, said an of-counsel lawyer for his firm was in Bimini meeting with family members of crash victims but that his firm was invited by a family member. “The Nolan Law Group is committed to the ethical practice of law and has authorized no one to act otherwise on their behalf,” he said in a statement. Ellis also criticized Ruiz for filing the complaint. “We will fully investigate the allegations made by Mr. Ruiz, including his actions throughout and his motives for making these statements,” Ellis said. A few days after the crash, Kendrick Sherman, whose wife, Sofia, and 16-month-old daughter, Bethany, died in the crash, said he bumped into some people claiming to be a psychiatrist and disaster-assistance volunteers. Sherman said he later discovered that the visitors were representatives of the Nolan Law Group and that they were seeking to sign him up as a client for a potential aviation liability lawsuit against Chalk’s. “They were here the day of the crash,” Sherman said. “They said they were from the Red Cross and were going to help the victims’ families.” Another Bimini relative of a crash victim, Denise Fowler, said she was preparing for the funeral of her sister, Sabrena Dean, when representatives from the Rose Law Firm showed up at her home. They told her daughter, who greeted them at the door, that they needed to speak with Fowler. Fowler said she declined to talk with them. But, she said, “they kept coming back, coming back every day. I was tired of lawyers, but they insisted.” Tony Boggs, the Florida Bar’s director of lawyer regulation, said the bar has launched an investigation of Deborah Rose and Jacob Ross of the Rose Law Firm. The bar has not opened an investigation into Donald Nolan of the Nolan Law Group, he said. Nolan is not a member of the Florida Bar. Boggs said the bar “takes these charges very seriously. Lawyers have been suspended for using runners to sign up airplane crash clients. Lawyers have been disbarred for using runners to sign up crash clients.” Ambulance-chasing in the wake of aviation disasters has led to legislation restricting contact between lawyers and victims’ families after a crash. In 1996, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which prohibits lawyers and their representatives from contacting the family members of crash victims for 45 days after the incident. In the case of the Chalk’s crash, family members of the victims say the Nolan and Rose firms didn’t wait to be contacted. But the Nolan Law Group’s Ellis denied that anyone from his firm was authorized to solicit clients or misrepresented himself or herself as being from the Red Cross or as being a psychiatrist. “We do specifically deny that we authorized anyone to contact new clients, and we will cooperate in any investigation,” he said. “We’re not going to put the reputation of the firm on the line by something as base as that.”
Julie Kay and Jessica M. Walker are staff writers for the (Miami) Daily Business Review , the ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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