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Personal-injury lawyers back in chaseby mail

May 12, 1994

A U.S. appeals court says Florida lawyers don't have to wait 30 days to send advertising material to accident victims. Now solicitations can begin almost as quickly as CPR.

That's great news for starving personal-injury attorneys, since ambulance-chasing by direct mail is more fuel efficient and less hectic than the old way.

Your secretary simply drives to the police station and copies the day's accident reports, which conveniently include the names and addresses of all parties. Soon you've got yourself a lengthy (and potentially lucrative) mailing list.

Disapproval of such tactics caused the Florida Bar to impose the 30-day rule in 1991. Softhearted regulators decided that accident victims should be given a few weeks to collect their wits before being peppered with brochures from lawyers.

The problem was, some accident victims actually got better during that time, and thus had no interest in suing anyone.

It was a sad period for personal-injury attorneys. Some turned to probate law, or even real estate. Others simply went broke. Before long, they were living under the interstate and collecting aluminum.

Fortunately, one brave fellow fought back. His name was G. Stewart McHenry, a disbarred Tampa lawyer with justice on his mind and time on his hands. He hired a non-disbarred lawyer and sued.

McHenry argued it was unconstitutional for the Bar to curb a lawyer's use of the postal system. On Tuesday the nth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, tossing out the 30-day waiting rule.

Once again, lawyers may write to crash victims immediately after the mishap. In composing those letters, the tricky part is to avoid coming off as a cold-blooded mercenary. Veracity should always be glossed with compassion:

Dear Mr. Doe,

It has come to our professional attention that you were recently involved in an unfortunate (plane, bus, train, boat, moped or automobile) accident. We sincerely hope that you and your (wife, children or co-workers) were unharmed and have no cause to take legal action, despite the many millions of dollars you might be able to collect.

However, in the tragic event that you now find yourself (maimed, dismembered, bruised, stiff, achy, queasy, sneezy, dizzy or sexually lethargic), we advise you to visit our office for a free legal consultation.

We apologize for contacting you so soon after your accident. Seeing our postal carrier at the hospital must have been quite a surprise! We sincerely hope his presence did not interfere with any emergency medical procedures.

But experience has taught us that the sooner we can reach victims and inform them of their rights, the more assistance we can give. That's why our firm communicates only by registered mail.

We understand that, under the circumstances, it might be impossible for you to personally sign for our important correspondenceyour writing arm might be fractured, sprained or attached to an intravenous tube.

In that case, any licensed (paramedic, nurse, doctor or physical therapist) may accept our mail on your behalf.

We also realize that you might be unable to read this letter and make a timely decision regarding your legal representation. Don't worry. Some of our most loyal clients were heavily sedated at the time we contacted them. Some were even in deep comas.

If that's your situation, a member of our staff will gladly visit you in Intensive Care to explain your options. We're specially trained to interpret your feeblest sigh, moan or tremor.

Your pain is our pain, Mr. Doe. Only a (five-, six-, seven-) figure settlement will truly ease it. Please let us help.

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