Md. bar regrets not acting in train wreck Plan to protect victims from unscrupulous lawyers not activated

March 05, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Some Maryland State Bar Association officials are red-faced about the organization's response -- or lack of one -- to last month's fiery train accident in Silver Spring.

Seven years ago, the state bar was one of the first in the country to deal with such tragedies, creating a "disaster information plan" to shield accident victims and their families from unscrupulous lawyers.

But in the hours after the crash, as some attorneys canvassed the crash scene, gathering up clients and their multimillion-dollar lawsuits, the state bar was strangely absent.

Why?

One official responsible for triggering the plan to action wasn't aware of his role.

Others acknowledged that the state bar failed to see the legal bonanza the accident might present for unethical lawyers.

"Unfortunately, we didn't realize the extent of the tragedy, nor did we expect the arrival of 'parachute' lawyers from Maryland and other states," said Janet S. Eveleth, the state bar's director of communications and one of those responsible for setting the program in motion.

"The plan calls for an immediate response. By the time we realized what was occurring, it was too late. I'm sorry we didn't react."

State bar president Robert T. Gonzales agreed that bar officials probably were mistaken in not responding to the accident. But he noted that the train wreck, though tragic, wasn't the mass disaster envisioned when state bar officials drew up their emergency plan in 1989.

"It was one of those close calls," Mr. Gonzales said. "In retrospect, we should have assumed a more active role. In the future, we will."

The number of lawyers who made their way to the accident scene isn't known. But state bar officials and others familiar with the crash's aftermath say lawyers went to surprising lengths to hook up with anyone who might bring a lawsuit.

The day after the crash, a lawyer showed up at the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore where accident victims had been taken, seeking their names.

Several members of victim families have complained of about being besieged by lawyers. One relative of a survivor told a reporter of receiving that the family received about 100 phone calls from the media , as well as and lawyers offering to take their case.

Ms. Eveleth said the state bar has received reports of lawyers traveling from as far as New Jersey and Pennsylvania to work the accident scene.

"We think it's deplorable," said Ms. Eveleth, referring to the efforts of lawyers to capitalize on the accident. "No one should be pressured to retain the services of any attorney until they have thought about it and had the opportunity to make a prudent decision."

In Maryland, lawyers aren't permitted to recruit clients at accident scenes or anywhere else. The state's code of conduct for lawyers bars all in-person solicitation. Lawyers who do meet clients that way risk a range of penalties and can be disbarred.

Newspaper advertisements intended to catch the eye of accident victims are permitted, however, and were used by several lawyers.

A Baltimore attorney, Gerald P. Sellers, purchased a series of advertisements in The Sun, inviting calls from people who "have been injured in a train accident, or any other type of accident." In the ads, the word "train" was in capital letters.

Mr. Sellers did not return repeated phone calls to his home and office.

Experts in legal ethics say offers like Mr. Sellers' besmirch the reputation of other lawyers, though they don't violate rules.

Experts in legal ethics say such offers besmirch the reputation of other lawyers, though they don't violate rules.

"It plays to the worst feelings of the public about the [legal] profession," said William I. Weston, a University of Baltimore professor who teaches legal ethics.

"Certainly, anyone who has been in a train wreck knows they need a lawyer. This ad doesn't give information; it's an opportunity to play on a tragedy."

Maryland is one of about a dozen states that have disaster plans. Texas created the first one, in the mid 1980s, after a deadly crash of a Delta airliner at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Survivors and family members of those killed in the accident were besieged by lawyers eager to bring multimillion-dollar lawsuits on their behalf.

In Texas, bar officials distribute pamphlets, talk to victims and take other steps to inform those at the scene. "We strive to get there within hours of the disaster," said Ann Sharpley, public information manager for the Texas State Bar Association.

Maryland's plan, which hasn't been used, directs bar officials to take a number of steps to aid accident victims. After arriving at the scene, officials should make themselves available to those victims, and speak with reporters about rules which limit lawyer contacts.

Bar officials also should try to monitor attempts by attorneys to contact potential clients, according to the bar's disaster plan.

"We'd definitely do everything possible so lawyers wouldn't be able to contact [victims]," Ms. Eveleth said. "That's one of our major roles. People absolutely should not have to be confronted by attorneys making cold calls."

Ms. Eveleth said she was confident state bar officials could have aided the accident victims in Silver Spring, and she said the organization has taken steps to be certain ensure that it responds to the next disaster.

"I'd like to think that victims' families would not have been harassed, that we would have been able to provide information and help," Ms. Eveleth said. "That's exactly what we're planning next time."

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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