CRASH COURSE: 1 800 411 PAIN NETWORK WILL LINE THEIR POCKETS WITH YOUR INSURANCE MONEY
Ganesh Sohan is built like a jockey, so thin; he’s almost concave, with a shaved head and delicate features that belie the punishment his body has endured. Four years ago, he served in a U.S. Army infantry unit in Iraq, where he survived an IED attack on his Humvee unscathed.
Originally from Trinidad, the 22-year-old now earns his paychecks lifting boxes in a Target storeroom at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. “I’m used to my body being sore,” he says. “I know what it feels like, my body being injured.” His voice is soft and submissive, as if war had never been part of his vocabulary.
Last June 16, in the sweltering center of a summer afternoon, Sohan headed to the beach. His friend Bryan Rodriguez was in the passenger seat. Rodriguez, 23, is the more imposing of the two men. A Puerto Rican native with dreadlocks and tattoos on his hands, he’s bounced around from a retail job to construction and washing cars.
Traffic stalled at the drawbridge just before the beach on East Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Without warning, a Ford truck rammed into them from behind. Sohan jolted forward, one hand gripping the wheel, the other glued to the stick shift.
The truck driver offered Sohan and Rodriguez cash, but they called the police instead. When a Fort Lauderdale cop arrived, the truck driver admitted he hadn’t stopped in time. He said his insurance would pay for the dents and scratches to Sohan’s Mitsubishi.
Sohan and Rodriguez went to the beach, but Rodriguez’s upper back hurt, and Sohan felt stiffness in his hands and back. By the next day, the ache in Sohan’s back was so strong that he couldn’t sleep. Rodriguez couldn’t get out of bed.
The friends weren’t well-versed in the intricacies of auto insurance, but they had seen the commercials that saturate TV and radio stations in South Florida. Actors posing as police officers implore viewers, “After 911, call 1 800 411 PAIN!” and tell victims, “Let them explain to you the $10,000 of injury and lost wage benefits you may be entitled to.”
Sohan assumed he could be eligible to receive $10,000 or “something like that.” So the guys decided to give it a shot. “1 800 411 PAIN, I hear it all the time,” Sohan says. He figured that a big company with a massive ad campaign must be legitimate. “If I see it on TV, it’s somewhere I could trust to go to.”Yet Sohan never received $10,000 like the ad touted. Instead, he unwittingly served as a pipeline, sending his insurance benefit money right into the pockets of chiropractors and lawyers from the 1-800-411-PAIN Referral Service. Before long, he ran up a $15,000 medical bill. Now, he and Rodriguez have filed a class-action lawsuit to help themselves and others who say they were tricked by 1 800 411 PAIN.
1 800 411 Pain advertisement:
A model with sculpted biceps and milk-chocolate skin appears on the TV screen dressed in a navy-blue police uniform. Standing by an open car hood, he speaks with friendly authority.
“I arrive at all types of accidents — auto, motorcycle, slip-and-fall, and work injuries,” he begins. “And I always tell everyone to call 1 800 411 PAIN. According to Florida Law, you may be entitled to a minimum of $10,000 in injury protection and lost wages, whether you’re at fault or not.
“Remember, after 911, call 1 800 411 PAIN.”
The commercial’s message is simple. It tempts viewers with $10,000 but never explains that the doctors and lawyers, not the patient, will get the money.
The ad has great appeal to people who are not familiar with insurance laws or not skeptical enough to ask many questions. Many of the company’s ads are aimed at viewers like Sohan — those struggling to pay the bills, those who don’t have a lawyer or doctor friend to call for advice.
People of all stripes are potential customers, but 1 800 411 PAIN makes no secret about courting black and Latino clients. On R&B and hip-hop stations such as Hot 105 and 96.5 FM, the company’s pulsing jingle is inescapable: “Don’t play no games/Stay in yo’ lane/You touch my car, then I’m callin’ 1 800 411 PAIN.”
Other commercials flood Spanish-language television stations. One starts with a squealing car crash, then cuts to a woman in a neck brace, lying on a stretcher complaining, “No quiero estar esperando por horas en el hospital!” (“I don’t want to be waiting for hours in the hospital!”)
“Entónces, lláme 1 800 411 PAIN,” the ambulance driver tells her.
Then there’s the popular company spokesman, “Jorge,” a lovable geek who lives in Miami, wears a fanny pack, and carries an ancient cordless phone.
A seemingly endless flow of cash funds all these marketing tools. In the past dozen years, the company has spent more than $13.2 million on advertising, according to court documents. More than 250,000 people “like” 1 800 411 PAIN’s Facebook page. In October, the page held a Halloween costume contest asking fans to dress up like “Jorge” and win $1,000.
The page also regularly gives away $100 prizes to fans who win celebrity trivia contests involving anything from a new Kanye West album to a Jersey Shore star. “Snooki’s birthday is tomorrow! What birthday gift would you give Snooki? The funniest answer by 10PM EST will win $100!”
This booming business is made possible by Florida’s insurance laws. Florida is a “no fault” insurance state. If someone crashes into your car, your insurance is supposed to pick up the tab for treating your injuries, and the other person’s insurance will cover theirs. It doesn’t matter who caused the accident. The idea is to avoid the cost of expensive lawsuits and skyrocketing premiums.
All Florida drivers are required to carry a minimum of $10,000 in personal insurance protection (PIP) insurance. If you’re injured in an accident and can’t work, that $10,000 is supposed to cover 80 percent of your medical bills and/or 60 percent of your lost wages, according to the state Department of Financial Services.
Ideally, doctors would provide only the services that are medically necessary and the insurance companies would pay the bills promptly. But the system gets perverted by doctors who inflate fees and lawyers who profit from battling insurance companies to collect those fees. There are various ways that fraud can occur. Some people stage car accidents or fake injuries simply to collect the PIP money. In other cases, a patient has a legitimate but minor injury. His doctor knows that a pot of $10,000 is available, so to get the entire amount, the doctor will run up the patient’s bill with expensive tests and treatment he may not need.
“It’s become a dollar target,” says Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded nonprofit. “And people will find that the benefits magically end when you reach that $10,000 limit.”
In Florida, the problem is especially severe. “Florida leads the entire nation in PIP fraud,” says John Askins, director of the state’s Division of Insurance Fraud.”You are talking about tens of thousands of fraudulent claims. We have always been overwhelmed.”
Lawyers make money from accidents and PIP claims too, because they step in to fight skeptical insurance companies and force them to pay the doctor bills. The lawyers charge hefty hourly fees and take a percentage of any insurance monies won.
If a doctor exaggerates a patient’s injuries to get paid more, “it’s insurance fraud,” McChristian says. “And it’s not a victimless crime, because we all pay more for insurance because of these kinds of situations.”
As of 2007, Florida was the fifth-most expensive state in the nation for auto insurance, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Although decrying fraud in the system, some personal injury lawyers and doctors say PIP is necessary to cover urgent medical care for car accident victims without other forms of health insurance. In 2007, the state Legislature considered ending the PIP requirement. The Florida Hospital Association protested, saying that 40 percent of people sent to emergency rooms after a crash have no health insurance other than PIP.
“Without PIP, consumers’ health insurance policies will rise to cover their injuries — as well as those of the uninsured,” Rich Morrison, corporate vice president of the association, said at the time. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul and shifting the medical costs of uninsured motorists to insured ones is not in the best interest of Floridians.”
And Cris Boyar, a Margate personal injury attorney, argues insurance companies are also to blame for driving up costs. Insurers “routinely and unreasonably deny valid claims,” Boyar wrote in an October 2010 Florida Bar Journal article. They “drive up legal fees by causing expensive and protracted litigation.”
No investigative agency has publicly accused 1 800 411 PAIN of criminal wrongdoing, and Sohan and Rodriguez’s lawsuit does not directly accuse 1 800 411 PAIN of PIP fraud. Instead, it says the two men were misled into using the company’s services so that 1 800 411 PAIN could “secure insurance payments and reimbursement for medical services.” The class-action lawsuit, filed in Broward Circuit Court, alleges false advertising, deceptive trade practices, and a civil conspiracy. According to the complaint, the company used “1-800-411-PAIN to conduct a massive advertising and marketing campaign, using fraudulent misrepresentations as a method of procuring patients.” They also “unlawfully solicit clients… on behalf of lawyers pursuing personal injury claims.”
Based on their investigation of the company, Sohan’s lawyers believe that 1 800 411 PAIN, which calls itself a “medical and legal referral service,” has a formula for collecting PIP money, plus extra cash. First, the hotline refers a client to a chiropractic clinic that will burn through his PIP money by having him visit the doctor nearly every day, undergoing multiple treatments. The doctors may even inflate the severity of the diagnosis, saying the client’s injuries are so serious that they go beyond the $10,000 PIP coverage. They will charge the patient, say, $5,000 more than the PIP limit, thereby saddling him with a medical debt that can be resolved only through a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the hotline sends the client to a personal injury lawyer — which wouldn’t be necessary if the client didn’t have so many medical bills to pay. The lawyers file a claim against the other driver’s insurance company — the person who supposedly “caused” the crash. Using the injured client’s stack of medical treatments as evidence, the lawyer will ask for thousands of dollars in damages, in addition to the $10,000 that was already billed to PIP.
The other driver’s insurance company, eager to avoid the hassle and expense of going to court, will often settle the claim. The lawyer and the doctor then each take a hefty percentage of the settlement — to cover legal fees and treatment costs — and the client will get whatever small portion remains.
1 800 411 PAIN denies any wrongdoing, and a lawyer for the company has called the lawsuit “frivolous.” They claim doctors in their network are treating people with legitimate injuries.
James Quiggle, communications director for the nonprofit Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in Washington, D.C., did not have direct knowledge of the 1 800 411 PAIN lawsuit but said that generally, in personal injury cases, it can be difficult to prove whether medical treatment was justified or doctors are exaggerating to inflate their fees.
“Many clinics carefully tread a thin line between legal abuse and criminal fraud,” Quiggle says. “These clinics try to dance right to the edge of a legal cliff without falling off. The operators can rake in big insurance dollars while making it hard for prosecutors to prove outright fraud.”
Thank you for calling 1 800 411 PAIN. Your call will be answered momentarily. This call may be recorded for quality assurance.”
When Rodriguez got a 1 800 411 PAIN operator on the phone in June, he explained that he and Sohan had been in a car crash and that his back was hurting. Neither man has a primary-care doctor. The operator told Rodriguez where Broward Rehab was located and got him an appointment for a few hours later.
The two men drove to the office, located in a battered West Oakland Park Boulevard strip mall. The clinic’s floor-to-ceiling windows were made of reflective glass and shielded by black shades.
The Broward Rehab waiting room was ordinary — magazines in one corner, TV mounted on another wall. Rodriguez filled out piles of paperwork detailing his injury and Sohan’s auto insurance information, since Sohan was the driver of the car.
Sohan didn’t see a doctor that day. “I was kind of skeptical about it,” he says. “I know I can’t afford to pay for a chiropractor.” But the next day, when he returned with Rodriguez, he was in so much pain that he too decided to get an appointment. Thus began an almost-daily slog of doctor visits. Although the men wouldn’t see the bills right away, they started racking up.
Sohan’s visit began with three x-rays of his back. Then he was told to lie on a bed while a machine emitted tiny shock waves that forced the muscles in his back to clench and relax. This was called electric muscle stimulation (EMS), a therapy designed to relieve inflammation and pain.
Then, he received a ten-minute back massage from a massage therapist. Next, Sohan met with a chiropractor. She had him lie on a bed with levers to move his back up and down. This was called “mechanical traction,” a chiropractic technique designed to stretch and relax his spinal muscles. “That made it worse,” Sohan says. “It never cracked my back.”
Like many people, Sohan did not have a full grasp of the medical terminology and technology, but he trusted the doctors to make the right decision for his health.
The therapies he received, while perhaps medically debatable, are not uncommon in the chiropractic world. But Sohan — young, healthy, unaccustomed to dealing with doctors — didn’t probe too deeply. Every time he came to the clinic, employees had Sohan sign off on a document spelling out each service he received. And he scrawled his initials, although he didn’t know what EMS or mechanical traction were.
Sohan always left the clinic without paying. He wouldn’t see a written bill until months later, when he’d stopped going to Broward Rehab. That’s when he discovered he was billed for many things he doesn’t remember receiving. There were 19 ultrasounds, although he says he only got one or two, and 17 charges for therapeutic exercises at $150 a pop, which he says he never did.
This is precisely the problem McChristian, the insurance advocate, rails against.
“The individual may not know that they’re being billed for certain services or that their insurance companies are being billed for treatment they never received,” McChristian explains. “The individual isn’t getting the $10,000. In their name, services are being billed.”
Then, there was the legal trouble. During his first Broward Rehab visit, the receptionist gave Rodriguez the name and number of a lawyer he should call. Askins, of the Division of Insurance Fraud, says a referral to a lawyer is common practice for accident clinics. “That seems to always happen — they just have a personal injury lawyer waiting in the wings,” he says.
Sohan and Rodriguez were referred to a Pompano Beach lawyer who did little except read them a contract outlining his fee — 33.3 percent of any settlement up to $1 million, provided they settled the case before the other driver’s insurance company filed an answer to their complaint. If the case dragged on longer, the fee went up to 40 percent.
“‘We’re gonna win this case,'” Rodriguez remembers the lawyer saying. “‘Keep going to therapy, as much as they say.'”
So the two friends continued going to Broward Rehab for two months. At first, Sohan was instructed to come every day. “Therapy is repetitious,” he was told. Yet his back kept hurting.
“I wasn’t seeing any development,” he says. Eventually, his therapy regimen was cut back to around three days a week.
But Sohan had no clue that any monies he won in a legal settlement would likely be used to cover the medical bills he was racking up at Broward Rehab. He didn’t know how PIP worked and didn’t realize the doctors and lawyers were eating up his insurance benefits.
“I was really, really confused,” Sohan says. Whenever he called the lawyer with questions about his case, only the secretary was available, and the lawyer never called back. (The lawyer himself did not respond to repeated requests from New Times for comment.)
Unable to lift heavy boxes, Sohan initially took two weeks off from work. When his injury lingered and he still couldn’t handle heavy loads, his supervisors cut back his work hours. He says his Target bosses were willing to help him qualify for social security disability insurance, but his claim was rejected by the government. When he visited the social security office, he was told they were still trying to get the proper documentation from Broward Rehab. “They always said the doctor wasn’t there to sign it,” he says.
Yet Sohan kept returning to the clinic. “I had no idea where else to go,” he says. “I wasn’t getting no advice from anybody. They seemed like at least they were doing something. And they kept telling me to come back.”
Robert Cash Lewin, owner of 411-PAIN, arrives for an interview at his lawyer’s office in downtown Fort Lauderdale wearing a dark suit jacket and a collared shirt. Flanked by his graying attorney and his polished PR consultant, he apologizes for being nervous. Indeed, he seems swallowed up by the mammoth conference table and his leather chair.
At 44, he is short and squat, with spiky dark hair, pale skin, and a goatee. He could be a young Danny DeVito playing the role of businessman. His voice takes on a car salesman’s pitch as he delivers lines such as, “We have achieved our success with a focus on helping the injured.”
Lewin and his twin brother, Harley, grew up in Davie as the youngest members of a family with nine kids. Their father started the Small Fry daycare chain, which grew to 30 locations in South Florida. Lewin was blessed with the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and credits his dad with giving him the idea for expanding his business.
When they were kids, one of Lewin’s older brothers was friends with a boy named Guy Shapiro. Because Shapiro was six years older than him, Lewin didn’t know him well. He had no idea the teenager would later become his business partner and good friend. And he was ignorant of a dark chapter in Shapiro’s life.
In 1977, when he was around 16, Shapiro allegedly raped his 5-year-old niece while babysitting her in North Miami Beach. He assaulted the child “possibly 10 or more times” over the course of a year, according to an affidavit in the case. A dozen years later, the victim and her mother confronted Shapiro about what happened. He eventually pleaded no contest to four counts of lewd and lascivious assault on a child and served four years of probation. By then, he had become a chiropractor. He was barred from treating children in his practice during that time.
But Lewin says he knew nothing about Shapiro’s crimes. The two didn’t cross paths much until they both attended Life University in Atlanta for chiropractic training. They grew closer after they returned to Florida and set up shop separately as chiropractors. In the early ’90s, they began hatching plans to launch a chain of clinics together.
They opened Broward Rehab in 1995. In official documents, Lewin was listed as president of the company, and Shapiro’s mother was president of the board of directors.
The next year, state records show, Lewin opened Dade Rehabilitation in Miami and the following year a clinic in Hollywood. By 2002, they also had a clinic in Aventura, bringing the total to four. The medical practice was accompanied by a marketing arm, which Lewin started early on. In 1997, he got a license for a toll-free number and began advertising “accident recovery information services” provided by 800-411-PAIN.
Lewin bristles at any suggestion of impropriety in his company. 411-PAIN’s goal is to assist people in need, he says. The clinics treat slip-and-fall victims and people injured on the job as well as car accident victims. They also do general chiropractic work and have medical doctors on-site, he says.
The company was a thriving but rather small operation for nearly a decade. It didn’t take off until after Shapiro died.
Just before 4 a.m. on April 1, 2007, Shapiro drove to an Opa-locka gas station, desperate to buy crack . Three Miami teenagers sold him some fake rock, then stuck a shotgun in the window of his Cadillac Escalade, according to a police report. His attackers demanded more cash. Shapiro, 45, refused to open his wallet. One of the teenagers pulled the trigger and left a bullet in Shapiro’s shoulder.
A police officer discovered Shapiro lying on the sidewalk, bleeding. He died five days later at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Three males — Jeffrey Hatcher, 19, Derrance Roberts, 17, and Antonio Williams, 15 — were charged with armed robbery and first-degree murder. Their case has not yet gone to trial.
While Shapiro was in the hospital on life support, Lewin filed paperwork with the state formalizing the advertising arm of the company. He called it 411-PAIN Advertising Group and listed himself as president, Shapiro as vice president.
With this company, Lewin could now attract other doctors to his network of chiropractic clinics. He charges them a licensing fee — he won’t specify the amount — to join. They also “help with the advertising budget,” he says. In return, clients are directed to their clinics when they call 411-PAIN.
“Our dynamic television and radio commercials will help you cultivate a client base that no competitor can rival,” the advertising group’s LinkedIn page promises. “Find out what it’s like having personal injury attorneys in your area courting you.”
Normally, a lone doctor running a small accident clinic would have to go find and hire a lawyer willing to file claims against insurance companies to make sure the patients’ questionable medical bills were paid. By joining 411-PAIN, the LinkedIn page implies, more accident victims will flock to the doctors’ offices. Personal injury attorneys will then “court” the doctors so they can file lawsuits on behalf of their patients and collect the legal fees.
Commercials are an essential part of 411-PAIN’s business plan. In court documents, 411-PAIN says it has spent $13.2 million on advertising in the past dozen years. And since the advertising group was formed, 411-PAIN’s business has gone gangbusters.
From 2008 to 2010, Lewin opened eight more clinics that he co-owns in Florida, in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, and Jacksonville.
He also exponentially increased the number of clinics in the network owned by outsiders and pushed the company into other states. The 411-PAIN network now includes 36 clinics with about 100 chiropractors in Florida. Another 11 clinics employing about 30 chiropractors operate in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Georgia, says Lewin’s PR consultant, Ellen Schulman.
Dr. Barry Raxenberg, a Palm Beach County chiropractor who says he joined the network more than five years ago, is full of praise for the company. “It has been a tremendous boost to my business,” he wrote in an email. “The number of patients treated by my clinic has increased significantly since being part of the 411-PAIN organization.”
Raxenberg declined to specify how much he paid to join the network or the amount of money he contributes to the marketing campaign.
The legal arm of 411-PAIN has undergone a similar growth spurt. Lewin says this aspect of his business began when patients at the medical clinics began asking legal questions. The chiropractors would then refer them to lawyers.
Sohan and Rodriguez’s lawsuit accuses 411-PAIN of “unlawfully solicit[ing] clients… on behalf of lawyers pursuing personal injury claims.” Any company that refers people to lawyers is supposed to register with the Florida Bar. But for a dozen years, 411-PAIN did not. This May, the company finally complied. “In order just to be on the conservative side, we’ve gone ahead and registered,” Perling says.
The lawsuit also says 411-PAIN “intentionally misled consumers into believing they are contacting a lawyer for legal services or a service that will explain to them their rights… when, in fact, they are contacting chiropractic medical clinics.” Florida Bar rules state that advertisements for attorney referral services must not include “visual or verbal descriptions, depictions, or portrayals of persons, things, or events” that are “deceptive, misleading, or manipulative.”
One 411-PAIN commercial features a white-haired man wearing a suit and tie who stands in front of a wall of legal books and says, “Insurance companies have attorneys working hard for them. Call 411-PAIN and get the right people working for you.”
Lewin maintains that “our commercials are an accurate, true description” of the services offered. In recent months, the company has changed some of its ads to comply with the bar rules, adding disclaimers that identify it as a medical and legal referral service.
Lewin also flatly denies that the attorneys pay a fee to be part of the 411-PAIN network. That would violate bar rules. But he admits that the doctors and lawyers send each other business. They have “a reciprocal relationship,” meaning that in some cases, lawyers refer patients to doctors and vice versa.
That raises the question of whether the referral service points patients to the best possible medical and legal services or whether it just drums up business for a specific network of doctors and lawyers.
For instance, a chiropractor may not be able to provide the best medical treatment to a patient. “Maybe I should be going to an osteopath, or maybe I should be going to a surgeon,” says J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. “I’d want to get advice on what is the specialty I need. If all they do is pump everybody into the chiropractors, that’s not appropriate either.”
Success has been good to Lewin. He owns three homes: a $1.2 million house in Davie, a $416,000 condo in Hollywood, and a $200,000 condo in Oakland Park. Twin brother Harley has become co-owner of the clinics that Shapiro used to help run. Harley is neither a chiropractor nor a lawyer. Schulman says he helps with “promotion” of the company.
Harley is also codirector, with Lewin, of 411-Cars Inc., a network of small car dealers who pool their advertising resources and market themselves together. Schulman says the dealers are not specifically soliciting 411-PAIN’s clients. “It’s totally unrelated to accidents,” she says. This year, Robert Lewin opened yet another company, 411 Pain Fight Gear, to sell mixed martial arts and boxing apparel.
Lewin hired PR consultant Schulman specifically to handle New Times’ inquiries about Sohan’s lawsuit against 411-PAIN. Aside from the initial, brief interview with Lewin and his lawyer, all questions were vetted through her.
She says Lewin grew the company quickly because he wanted to honor his dear friend. “Guy Shapiro’s dream was to expand the network statewide and nationally and offer expanded hours,” Schulman wrote in an email. “Guy’s death, along with Robert’s experience with his parents’ Small Fry network, sparked the timing of the rapid expansion.”
Regardless of motivation, 411-PAIN is vigilant about protecting its cash-cow brand. As the company has become more successful, it has spawned copycats, such as 1-800-NEED-HELP, an injury hotline with billboards along I-95 in Palm Beach County.
Last year, Lewin filed a federal lawsuit against a Palm Beach Gardens-based competitor, 888-444-PAIN, arguing the hotline was too similar to 411-PAIN’s trademarked brand.
He accused 444-PAIN of service mark infringement, unfair competition, and cyberpiracy. He alleged the competitor was purposely trying to “divert customers seeking Broward Rehab to call a confusingly similar phone number” and was benefiting from the “brand recognition and goodwill” that 411-PAIN had worked so hard to establish. This March, Lewin won a $5 million judgment and a permanent injunction preventing the company from continuing to use the 444-PAIN brand.
As for Sohan and Rodriguez’s case, Lewin says that the frequency of their visits would have been determined by the severity of their injuries. “The doctor gives the care plan,” he says. “It’s not based on convenience; it’s based on what the doctor feels is best for the patient’s health.” Lewin says it’s 411-PAIN’s policy to distribute an explanation of services to each patient, so Sohan should have received that. And he should have asked questions if he was confused.
When Sohan and Rodriguez filed their class-action suit in Broward Circuit Court this October, Lewin suspected that competitors were somehow behind the lawsuit. He called it “slimy business tactics” and insists that everything his company is doing is legal.
“What this lawsuit is really about is 411-PAIN’s market share,” Lewin says. “Competition is supposed to bring out the best in people, and in this case, it’s brought out the worst.”
Sohan and Rodriguez finally stopped going to Broward Rehab in August after two months of frequent visits. Around that time, Rodriguez complained to a neighbor about his experience with the clinic and 411-PAIN. The neighbor happened to work for the Kelley/Uustal law firm in Fort Lauderdale and suggested they talk to the lawyers there. When Sohan and Rodriguez relayed their troubles to the attorneys, the lawyers decided to file suit. As the case gets publicized, Kelley/Uustal hopes to find other plaintiffs.
“411-PAIN has misled accident victims about who they are and what they really do,” says Eric Rosen, Sohan’s attorney. “This lawsuit is meant to stop this and compensate all Florida consumers who have used the 411-PAIN service and fallen for their unfair practices.”
Kelley/Uustal doesn’t compete with 411-PAIN and doesn’t handle small car-accident cases. Rosen says the firm will not charge Sohan a penny if he loses his case.
For now, Sohan’s auto insurance company has frozen his PIP payments to Broward Rehab. The high medical bills and large amount of treatment for a minor fender-bender raised a red flag with the company’s investigators, and they are now examining Sohan’s case, Rosen says.
In all, Broward Rehab billed Sohan for $15,185 worth of services.
If he wins his class-action suit, Sohan hopes to get all his medical bills paid or waived and his attorney fees covered. He’s also asked for an undetermined amount of damages to compensate him for the money 411-PAIN made from having him as a client.
Meanwhile, Sohan is still living with his parents in Sunrise. He still works at Target, but his hours have been severely cut because of his lingering injury. Since Broward Rehab’s insurance bill exceeded $10,000, there’s no PIP money left to cover his lost wages.
Instead of walking around with a healthy back and the thousands of dollars he envisioned getting from 411-PAIN, he’s struggling to make ends meet. The pain in his back lingers, along with his mountain of medical bills.
Turns out, surviving an IED attack in Iraq was easier than surviving his minor car accident in Fort Lauderdale.
Just this morning I was driving in my car listening to local radio (94.1 FM) when a very bizarre advertisement was aired. A non-attorney spokesperson for 411-Pain came on and stated the exact number of licensed members of the Florida Bar, and that “there is only one 411-Pain.” She then alluded to 411-Pain being comprised of an exclusive select group of attorneys. At no point did this non-attorney spokesperson explain that lawyers who opt to become members of 411-Pain must pay a fee to participate and receive cases within the network. Further, she failed to state that lawyers who opt to be members of the 411-Pain network do not possess any special skills or abilities as compared to non-members. The only difference is the members chose to pay a lawyer referral service to obtain cases.
The average consumer who listens to the above referenced radio advertisement would likely be left with an impression, that it must be an honor to be associated with 411-Pain or any analogous “for profit” lawyer referral service (i.e., 1-800-ASK-GARY). This could not be further from the truth. The 411 Pain lawyers pay to be a member of this so-called “exclusive group” that they allegedly worked so hard to cultivate. These facts make such commercials laughable. Sadly, your average unsophisticated consumer has no idea that the non-attorney spokesperson is only telling them a half-truth when referring to this exclusive group of lawyers.
What the non-attorney spokesperson fails to discuss, is that for-profit lawyer referral services such as 411 Pain acts as a middle-man to the process of a consumer obtaining legal representation. In fact, by calling 411 Pain you are placing a great deal of trust in an individual sitting inside a call center. The individual fielding your call is not a licensed attorney or a physician. However, by dialing 411-Pain you are empowering an individual who lacks specialized training to make decisions that greatly impact your healthcare and the potential value of your legal claim.
In 2011, I had a lunch with an individual who described herself as an “attorney liaison” for 411-Pain. At no point did I have any interest in joining this group. Rather, I simply took the lunch with a colleague to learn more about the process. She informed us that we would have to pay a fee (I believe it was monthly) and we would receive cases either directed or referred to us by a call center. Thus, someone in a call center was making the determination of where the client would be sent. As previously stated, one can assume, that the individual in the call center; is neither an attorney nor a physician. Thus, how would this individual know what is best for the prospective auto accident victim.
Is There Any Special Qualities Associated With a 411 Pain Attorney?
There is no special qualities or criteria for an attorney to become a member of the leading lawyer referral services that would separate such individual or lawyer from their counterparts who are non-members. In fact, many members of the Florida Bar frown upon lawyer referral services and believe that organizations like 411-Pain and 1-800-ASK-GARY provide subpar service and mislead consumers with advertising that is considered disingenuous by many. The Miami New Times published a very interesting expose on 411-Pain, that paints a very unflattering illustration of the origins of this particular lawyer referral service as well as the principal founding members who have a quite colorful track record. The article details a lengthy account of the difficulties that injury victims faced after calling 411-Pain and commencing medical treatment with a clinic associated with the service. The article written by Lisa Rab discussed issues that these same injury victims had with their 411-pain lawyer/law firm who they were referred to by the lawyer referral service. In many instances, the personal injury victim either never spoke with their attorney or had experienced difficulty in getting a hold of the lawyer. The lawyers/law firms described in the article share many of the defining characteristics of a personal injury settlement mill. I am not stating that all law firms in the 411 Pain network are mere settlement mills. Rather, the expose in the Miami New Times illustrated behavior indicative of lawyers who care more about the quantity of their cases as opposed to focusing on quality. When I hear complaints from an injury victim that they never met their attorney and phone calls to the law firm consistently went unreturned, red flags go up.
Does 411 Pain Look out for Your Best Interests?
Additionally, the article discusses the relationships between 411 Pain and the lawyers in the network. In fact, the lawyers will often encourage the injury victim to seek consistent therapy through Chiropractors who also pay to be a part of the very same network. This creates an inherent conflict of interest as the attorney may advise their client into treatment that is either not necessary or encourage an amount of treatment that is disproportionate to the accident. Further, the same lawyer and Chiropractor may avoid sending the patient to a specialist like a Physiatrist (Physical medicine specialist) or Orthopedic Surgeon until the PIP (personal injury protection) benefits are used up. The author interviews several individuals who utilized 411 Pain to retain an attorney. They allege their lawyer encouraged them to treat over and over and failed to state that the majority of the settlement proceeds would be used to pay the accumulated medical bills.
Another question raised is whether 411 Pain will send you to the very best health care professional for your case or simply a member of their expansive network of physicians. This is no different than the attorneys that comprise the 411 Pain network. Who determined that these are the best lawyers? The answer is that these are the lawyers who opted to pay 411 Pain to become a member of their network. 411 Pain has deals with specific Chiropractors who will provide service to accident victims in areas for which they do not have a clinic. Who determines whether this Chiropractor is the best physician to suit the patient’s needs?
Furthermore, in locations wherein 411 Pain does have a clinic, it would be in their best interest to keep the patient treating at their location regardless of their need to see a specialist. The longer the patient treats for, the more PIP they can bill until they may ultimately exhaust the benefits available (often in the amount of $10,000.00).
In June of 2012, the Florida Attorney General’s office settled its lawsuit against the 411-Pain lawyer referral service. In the aforementioned article published by WTSP, I found the following passage “CBS affiliate WKMG investigated 411 Pain earlier this year and found that the hotline was not the “lawyer referral service” it was advertised to be; it was, instead, a pain clinic answering service that would refer victims to attorneys, but would also suggest treatments at its own clinics. The ads suggested victims could get a minimum of $10,000.00 in personal injury protection (PIP), plus a guarantee of lost wages.”
Injury Victims Left in a bad Position?
Further, the investigation by CBS affiliate WKMG found numerous instances where injury victims were left with hefty balances after a 411 Pain center or 411 pain affiliated clinic exhausted the $10,000.00 in available PIP (personal injury protection) coverage. The Orlando sentinel published a more detailed report on the lawsuit against 411-Pain and the subsequent settlement entered into with the Attorney General’s office.
Based on the settlement, 411-Pain is prohibited from saying it is referring injury victims to a “specialized attorney.” Thus, I am unsure how the latest advertisement explained above can be compliant with the agreement. Further, the question becomes whether the lawyers associated with 411 Pain are quality firms or mere settlement mills. Check out this article on personal injury settlement mills, published in Forbes magazine.
In another current radio advertisement by 411-Pain, a non-attorney spokesperson states that if you fail to seek medical treatment within fourteen (14) days following your automobile accident “it just doesn’t matter.” This is based on changes to Florida’s PIP statute that will go into effect on January 1, 2013. In accordance with the new provisions, an injury victim must commence medical treatment within fourteen (14) days following an auto accident in order for PIP benefits to apply to such treatment. However, the non-attorney spokesperson fails to explain that an injury victim still has a plausible cause of action against the at-fault party even if they fail to seek treatment within the first fourteen (14) days.
411-Pain has no incentive to properly explain this as the medical clinics associated with the lawyer referrals service can no longer bill PIP if the injury victim opts to seek treatment after this fourteen (14) day period. I have personally settled and successfully litigated numerous cases where my client waited a lengthy period of time before they commenced medical treatment. It clearly benefits the case to begin treatment immediately following an accident. However, a claim/case is not destroyed or rendered fruitless due to waiting to commence medical treatment.
I am most interested to learn what the Florida Attorney General’s office and the Florida Bar think of these latest advertisements. The Tampa Tribune published a very interesting article concerning the Florida Bar’s attempts to crack down on lawyer referral services. I found the following passage in the article penned by Michael Sasso, “A Florida Bar committee has been investigating legal referral services for months. The committee didn’t target any service specifically, but the growth of 1-800-Ask-Gary and 411 Pain has spooked some lawyers. Among their biggest concerns is the financial relationship among the lawyers, chiropractors and doctors who belong to them.
Conflict of Interest?
One concern is potential conflict of interest. Lawyers have shown up at medical clinics unsolicited to meet accident victims — apparently tipped off by a referral service, said Grier Wells, a Jacksonville lawyer chairing the Bar’s committee. Other lawyers might face a legal quandary: Do they have an allegiance to the client or to a medical provider that’s part of the accident hotline network?” This is quite a scary proposition. I have been retained by a number of clients who personally found their prior lawyer through a referral service and were pushed into extensive treatment with a Chiropractor by said attorney. The lawyer failed to explain their relationship with the lawyer referral service or disclose that both the law firm and the physician paid to be a member of the same network. When the client failed to show up for treatment, both the lawyer and Chiropractor would call them on the very same day. It appeared that the attorney and chiro were working together in cahoots.
It is my opinion that word of mouth is often the most effective form of advertising. I would have no qualms if the Florida Bar banned lawyer advertising altogether. Consumers are routinely misinformed concerning the quality of lawyers in the marketplace. The best attorneys often rely on word of mouth and referrals from current and former clients. More specifically consumers rely on a lawyer referral service to find a competent and experienced personal injury attorney. Sadly, a prospective injury victim will not obtain an objective answer by calling 411 Pain. The majority of the elite personal injury lawyers in the Tampa Bay area do not belong to a lawyer referral service. Thus, the individual fielding your inquiry in a call center is only aware of the lawyers within 411 Pain’s network.
I am not seeking to paint all lawyers associated with lawyer referral services with one brush. In fact, there are some competent law firms and individual attorneys that are members of such groups. However, it is time for consumers to learn the whole truth about 411-Pain, 411-pain attorneys and for-profit lawyer referral services in general. A majority of the finest personal injury attorneys in the State are not associated with any lawyer referral service. The vast majority of the top personal injury and civil trial lawyers in the Tampa Bay area have no affiliation with any lawyer referral service. In fact, many lawyers openly disdain lawyer referral services for the very issues cited in this article. The cheesy commercials and songs associated with lawyer referral services have done little to improve the reputation of a profession that is often shunned by the general public. One could argue that the commercials and songs portray personal injury attorneys in a poor light and serve to greatly enhance generalizations often linked with accident lawyers.
I would strongly recommend that a car accident victim thoroughly research their options prior to selecting a personal injury attorney. Further, one should not select a lawyer based solely on an advertisement. In this case, it is not even a lawyer who is advertising their services. Rather, the services are being advertised by a referral service through a non-attorney spokesperson. Why would you trust a non-attorney spokesperson with your legal needs? Unfortunately, such individuals are not accountable to the Florida Bar. Hence, the “for profit” referral services can make grand claims in their commercials and no one can hold their feet to the proverbial fire.
Before selecting an attorney, you should research the lawyer’s qualifications and experience. Do they routinely litigate against various insurance carriers or are they a settlement mill? How often does the firm take cases to trial? Is the firm properly staffed and do they have the financial resources to see your case through to the finish? Is the law firm a volume shop or do they do quality work? Has the lawyer received awards or recognition for their work from peers or third-party review? Check the law firm’s reviews from prior clients.
In any event, it is foolish to select a lawyer merely off an advertisement. It is even more troubling that auto accident victims routinely take advice from a non-attorney spokesperson.