Court will decide penalty for lawyers Two attorneys admit soliciting survivors

October 01, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Two lawyers who pursued clients from a Silver Spring train wreck face disciplinary action by the state's highest court for so-called ambulance chasing.

Keith S. Franz and Judson H. Lipowitz, both of Towson, have admitted trying to make clients of survivors and grieving relatives immediately after the crash that killed 11 people and injured 26 two years ago.

The night of the accident, the lawyers passed out business cards to survivors watching late-night news accounts of the crash at a Washington hotel. They called the victims and visited their homes -- violating Maryland's attorney conduct rules, which forbid such actions to protect vulnerable people from overzealous lawyers.

The Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear the case in January, will decide their punishment. In court files, Franz and Lipowitz have asked the court to fine and publicly reprimand them.

Officials from the Attorney Grievance Commission, which brought the charges in July, did not specify in court filings what punishment they are seeking. Officials were not available for comment yesterday.

The number of lawyers that flocked to the Feb. 16, 1996, fatal collision between Maryland Rail Commuter service and Amtrak trains in Silver Spring sparked concern at the Maryland Bar Association, bar officials said. Victims told of meeting lawyers in hospital intensive care units and of being phoned repeatedly in the days after the crash.

After the crash, a Maryland professional conduct rule was proposed that prohibited lawyers from writing letters to potential clients for 30 days after an accident or arrest.

Attorneys are rarely disciplined for illegal solicitation practices mainly because potential clients don't report them, said Janet Eveleth, spokeswoman for the bar association.

"There's just no excuse for attorneys to harass potential clients like that," Eveleth said. "We're very happy it's being addressed."

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.

RTC Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said solicitation isn't always wrong. Many people don't know their rights, and attorneys can help them.

"There's an educational part of solicitation that's very important," Millemann said.

Neither Franz, Lipowitz, nor their attorney, Melvin Sykes, returned phone calls seeking comment.

Franz and Lipowitz reported themselves to the Attorney Grievance Commission on March 12, 1996, the day before an article appeared in The Sun detailing possibly unethical actions by attorneys after the crash, undisputed court records show. Franz was mentioned by name in the article.

Before their confession, the pair had recognized their wrongdoing and sent letters to all the clients they had obtained, telling them that they could no longer represent them, the records indicate. They promised to aid any attorney the relatives chose to hire. Franz and Lipowitz did not charge for any time spent or expenses incurred.

"I know this letter comes as a surprise to you and your family and I regret that," Franz wrote to one of the clients.

Franz also admitted to wrongfully lending a client $250 so she could buy new clothes. The check was made out to cash -- forbidden by the rules.

In their defense, the attorneys said this was an isolated incident and vowed never to violate conduct rules again.

"There was no harm to any client," a defense court filing reads. Franz and Lipowitz "promptly did everything in their power to make amends for their violation."

For Bruce Loatman of Reston, Va., Franz's call was a surprise. Loatman was making funeral arrangements for his son when the attorney called him. In the end, Franz called Loatman several times and visited his home, he said.

Loatman said he did not feel pressure to retain Franz, but others might have. "I could see how people who didn't know much about the law or business in general could have been enticed.

"A reprimand sounds most appropriate to me," Loatman said when told of the penalties Franz and his partner had suggested. "I'm sure a lot of lawyers do that, but it goes unnoticed."

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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