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COLUMN

Lawyers' offers to 'help' added to widow's grief

Failure to check details resulted in offers to sue herself for husband's death

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 9:19 am

What would you call people whose negligence needlessly exacerbated the pain of a woman already dealing with the most difficult time of her life?

How about “attorneys”?

The subject of this story doesn't want to be named because she would rather honor her late husband's memory by serving others, not by reopening old wounds some might mistake for vengeance. But, in fact, her willingness to expose the actions of several law firms after a fatal traffic accident – even if done anonymously – represents not only justice, but the kind of courage that honors her late husband's memory.

The middle-aged woman – I'll call her “Jane” – was behind the wheel several months ago when a mechanical problem caused the crash that took the life of her husband and the father of her children. In the days that followed, the mail brought numerous cards offering sympathy and support, but also something else: letters from several lawyers offering to help her receive appropriate financial compensation for her loss.

By suing herself, apparently.

“The letters were even addressed to my husband,” Jane said as she sat in her kitchen and fought back the tears that belie the ludicrous nature of her ordeal. “They owe it to people to do some checking before they send this stuff out.”

In fact, even a cursory Internet search of newspaper reports about the accident would have revealed that the victim had died and that the driver was his still-grieving widow. But to firms who troll for clients simply by scouring often-incomplete police reports, even that elementary level of sleuthing was too much to ask.

And so, at a time when Jane should have been comforted by family and friends, she was also forced to cope with daily reminders of what had happened – and of how the supposed desire to “help” victims can in fact create even more of them.

And so Jane logically wonders: Were those lawyers really interested in her? Or what they hoped to gain from her incalculable loss?

It wasn't always this way. Before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state ethics codes banning legal advertisements in 1977, attorneys relied on personal contact, word of mouth or other less-intrusive forms of client recruitment. Today, however, television screens, phone-book covers and various other media are full of ads from attorneys offering to sue somebody for you. Jane threw out the letters long ago, but she said at least two came from firms that regularly advertise on TV. Some firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more on ads every year.

The problem here is that none of the firms may have violated state guidelines, which among other things require such letters to be clearly marked as advertising and cannot be sent within 30 days of the accident. But the stated rationale for that delay illustrates the problem in this case:

“This (30-day) restriction is reasonable required by the sensitized state of the potential clients, who may be either injured or grieving over the loss of a family member, and the abuses that experience has shown exist in this type of solicitation.”

How much greater must that grief seem to Jane, who not only lost her husband but was reminded that she was behind the wheel with the arrival of each solicitation?

As a journalist, I'm not about to advocate additional government limits on free speech – even for those who abuse that right. My wife is the executive director of the Allen County Bar Association, and she knows both from both professional and personal experience that people injured in accidents through no fault of their own need and deserve vigorous legal representation.

But surely a profession that prides itself on high standards of ethical behavior and legal competence should be equally eager to demonstrate its humanity and attention to basic details. Legal or not, the letters Jane received fell far short of that minimal standard and should induce all firms to do better in the future if they want to be taken seriously.

“I'm not out to get anybody and I don't have any hard feelings,” said Jane, who believes funeral directors should warn the families of accident victims of what they might encounter. “If I had known, maybe (the letters) wouldn't have bothered me. But if something's wrong, I try to make it right. Right now, I'm just sad it happened.”

One might say she has been victimized by the indifferent infliction of pain and suffering. Anybody know a good lawyer?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.