Lawyers sniff out victims Train crash: Soliciting business after the Silver Spring MARC-Amtrak train collision, aggressive lawyers intruded on the grief of families. Some of their subsequent actions may violate rules of professional conduct.

March 13, 1996|By Mark Hyman and Sandy Banisky | Mark Hyman and Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

Bruce Loatman was numbly trying to make funeral arrangements for his son, killed in the Feb. 16 train crash in Silver Spring, when the first lawyer called Keith S. Franz, of Towson, who said he had videotapes of the wreckage.

"That's how he pitched it," Mr. Loatman recalls. "He said he was on the scene ahead of everybody else."

Marlene Boyer was at her son's bedside in a hospital intensive care ward two days after the accident when a lawyer approached her.

Charles E. McClain Sr., of Forestville, says he was introduced to Mrs. Boyer and mentioned that he was a lawyer. He says he "can't recall" if he asked whether she needed legal help.

James Forbes, a Job Corps student who was on the MARC train in which 11 died, was in the lobby of Washington's Hyatt Regency Hotel, where dozens of other passengers spent the night, the day after the crash when a lawyer offered his card.

For some of the victims, the contacts were unsettling.

"I said, 'I'm grieving here, having enough trouble arranging funerals and things,' " says Mr. Loatman, of Reston, Va.

Some of the lawyers' approaches may have been more than unseemly, legal experts say; they may have violated rules of professional conduct intended to protect the vulnerable from aggressive attorneys.

Infractions could cost lawyers their licenses.

"This is one of those things that really outrages me," says William I. Weston, professor of legal ethics at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

"I have seen lawyers play the it's-on-the-line game. It's not on the line. It's pure, unadulterated greed.

"Imagine the chutzpah of going to a hospital bed to seek out a client, as the family hovers over the victim waiting to see if this person is going to live or die.

"And who should arrive but a lawyer."

Maryland's rules allow general advertising but do not allow attorneys to solicit individuals. Clients are supposed to seek out lawyers, not the other way around.

The rules are more liberal in the District of Columbia, allowing lawyers to phone and visit prospective clients.

In a society that often assumes the worst about lawyers, many attorneys believe that pursuing accident victims demeans their profession. They believe they should be offering reasoned, deliberate counsel not signing up the most clients the fastest.

"These are not ducks floating by that one shoots at," Mr. Weston says. "These are people. There's a need for standards of conduct."

Some lawyers justify their aggressive style, arguing that they are offering information to people who need help. Paul J. Hedlund, a Washington lawyer, says a phone call need not be an intrusion if the lawyers choose their words carefully.

"How do you know if a person is already represented by an attorney?" Mr. Hedlund asks. "How do you know what emotional state a person is in unless you contact them in some way?"

Some lawyers were creative in trying to make contact with the train crash victims.

One attorney showed up at the Baltimore office of Dr. John E. Smialek, the state medical examiner, about 7 p.m. on the night after the crash, seeking names and phone numbers of the victims' families "to start a support group" for the bereaved.

Dr. Smialek had just finished identifying the victims and was about to phone the information to police, who would officially notify the families, when he heard a commotion in the hallway.

"This fellow shows up and very aggressively pushes his way past my secretary," he said. "This fellow was asking for the names of the victims. He kept saying they really needed help and no one was helping them "

Dr. Smialek refused him the information.

At Silver Spring's Suburban Hospital, where some of the injured were taken, two men in business suits arrived in the intensive care unit Sunday, two days after the crash.

Robert L. Chernikoff noticed them lingering by the elevators. A personal-injury lawyer from Bethesda, Mr. Chernikoff had been called to the hospital a day earlier by Mrs. Boyer, who hired him.

Mr. Chernikoff says the men seemed out of place among tense family members in the ICU.

When he confronted them, they replied, " 'We're citizens concerned about safety.' That's a direct quote," says Mr. Chernikoff.

Eventually, the men acknowledged they were from a Washington law firm. "When I told them I represented Mrs. Boyer, they didn't stay around." (He says Mr. Franz has since replaced him as Mrs. Boyer's lawyer).

Mr. McClain says he found one his clients, Kelvin Williams, by driving through Mr. Williams' old Seat Pleasant neighborhood. At first reluctant to give details, citing "attorney-client privilege," Mr. McClain said he was "riding through the neighborhood and somebody told me where [Kelvin Williams] lived. I drove by and saw his mother coming out of the driveway and stopped the car and said, 'I'm Charles McClain. I'm a lawyer.'

"And she said, 'God sent you.' She said, 'I told my son that he should probably get a lawyer. You're a godsend, Mr. McClain.' "

He defends his actions: "I didn't do any ambulance chasing."

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