At one time, a patient recovering in the hospital after a car crash might receive a visit from an unfamiliar face—a runner, seeking to recruit the injured party as a personal injury lawyer’s client in exchange for a cut of the resulting legal fees.
Twenty years after the use of runners to obtain clients was outlawed in New Jersey, evidence suggests the practice persists in some places, but their hold on the personal injury trade is greatly diminished.
In 1999, the state Supreme Court caught the attention of personal injury attorneys when it disbarred a plaintiffs lawyer named Patrick Pajerowski for using runners to get clients. The court declined, however, to enact a bright-line law calling for disbarment of all lawyers who use runners. Legislators followed up by enacting a law making it a crime for an attorney to pay another person to recruit clients, with that infraction carrying a presumptive penalty of three to five years in prison.
Today, such practices are not completely extinct but have become less common.
In a recently filed suit, a pair of New York firms stand accused of using runners to snatch clients from Newark’s Ginarte Gallardo Gonzalez & Winograd. The runners allegedly met clients at a pain management specialist’s office and gave them cash payments if they agreed to discharge the Ginarte firm and hire the firms of Rene Garcia and William Schwitzer, according to a suit filed Oct. 29 in state Supreme Court in Manhattan. The defendants have not filed answers in the case, but Garcia’s lawyer, Georgia Winston of Walden Macht & Haran in New York, said the allegations against her client lack merit and that he expects to be vindicated.
The suit says runners hired by the defendants were able to win over Ginarete Gallardo’s clients by denigrating that firm’s competence, paying clients $2,000 to $3,000 in cash, and providing free transportation, via Uber, to appointments with doctors and attorneys.
Another personal injury firm is accused in a suit of sending its office manager around the country to recruit clients injured in mass shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. In the suit, filed Oct. 22 in Superior Court in Camden, plaintiff Brian Nunez, a survivor of the Pulse shooting that killed 49, says John Groff of the Law Office of Conrad Benedetto in Voorhees hired him to convince other survivors to retain the Benedetto firm. But Groff allegedly made unwelcome sexual advances toward Nunez and other men who were hired in the same capacity, the suit claims.
But attorney Michael Phillips, who represents Benedetto’s firm, said the suit’s allegation that the firm uses runners to get clients is “laughable” and incorrect. The Benedetto firm does not use runners, said Phillips, of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel in Philadelphia.
Plainfield attorney David Walker remains suspended from practice in the wake of a crackdown by state officials on a ring that used runners to round up auto accident victims and then billed insurers for unnecessary treatments. Walker was one of 12 persons indicted when the enterprise was shut down in 2014, including two chiropractors, a paralegal, a physician, five runners and two individuals described as ringleaders.
Walker was convicted of using runners and of conspiracy, and received a two-year term of probation. The Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor and insurer Allstate also brought a civil suit against Walker and the other defendants to recoup losses incurred from their fraud. In April the state and Allstate moved for a default judgment against Walker in the amount of $151,317. The Department of Banking and Insurance did not respond to an inquiry about the status of that case.
John Sakson of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville said he’s not aware of any runner operations in his firm’s home base of Mercer County. Sakson said clients of his firm have reported contacts from runners in Philadelphia, where aggressive tow truck operators responding to auto accidents appear to have links to law firms.
One factor that has cut down on the trade of runners is likely the deluge of direct mail from lawyers to anyone who receives a traffic summons or is identified in a police report as an accident victim, Sakson said. He’s referring to vendors that obtain police reports under open records laws and convert them into mailing lists for attorneys—unpopular with some recipients but all perfectly legal.
“People are getting exposed to a lot of lawyers these days,” Sakson said.
To succeed as a runner requires access to a steady stream of high-volume cases, but such cases are less common under the state’s verbal threshold law, Sakson said.
“I don’t doubt there may be some deterrent effect with criminalization. I think it’s more likely that [being a runner] is just not as lucrative,” Sakson said.
Lawyers are far more aware of the legal and ethical pitfalls of using runners, and related behaviors, than in the past, said Marc Garfinkle, a Morristown attorney who practiced in personal injury law earlier in his career but now focuses on legal ethics and attorney discipline. Garfinkle said he regularly fields questions from other lawyers seeking advice on how to keep clear of legal and ethical proscriptions on runners. For example, a lawyer might ask if he or she can reimburse a client for the cost of gasoline and tolls when they visit the lawyer’s office. Garfinkle calls such payments a “slippery slope.”
Some lawyers are contacted by individuals who bill themselves as public relations consultants or referral services, but he advises caution. Lawyers can pay consultants to market their practice or bring in inquiries from clients, but can’t tie the fees paid to the amount of a verdict or tie fees to specific cases, Garfinkle said.
In addition, in the 1980s and 1990s, runners were focused strictly on personal injury practice, but with the decline in revenue from soft-tissue, auto accident cases, runners are expanding into other segments of legal practice, such as matching lawyers to homeowners who seek short sales or loan modifications, according to Garfinkle.
“It’s a very competitive market out there and some of these runners consider themselves entrepreneurs,” Garfinkle said. Legally, runners have far less on the line than lawyers who use their services, he said.
“They’re not going to get whacked like the lawyer will. There are criminal implications [to operating as a runner]. I suspect the perpetrators have made a risk-benefit analysis somewhere along the line,” Garfinkle said.