S-3056, sponsored by Senator Nicholas P. Scutari, is a consumer protection bill designed to protect consumers of legal services from improper solicitation. Unfortunately, the bill remains held up in committee.
The bi-partisan bill was designed to prevent the wide-spread practice of direct mail solicitations sent to accident victims. What is taking place currently, especially in lower income and immigrant areas, is that law firms are gathering police and other accident reports at the very moment that they are prepared by the authorities. Even before the accident victim is provided a copy, these law firms are able to send a direct mailing, soliciting business from the accident victims. We feel that the problem with this is three-fold: First, some of these mailings contain material that, in our view, are extremely misleading to the public. We have been told by some clients that upon receiving the mailings they thought that they had to sign paperwork with that attorney right away in order to be seen by a doctor or get their car fixed (this is certainly not true). Second, the direct mailings cause a public mistrust of the legal industry, feeding the stereotype that personal injury firms are “ambulance chasers” or are running some kind of scam. Third, the mailings allow less scrupulous firms to run their practice like some kind of high-volume mill – rather than work hard FOR the clients, they work hard to sign up lots of clients and push them to settle for low amounts. Finally, access to accident reports can lead to other types of illegal activity, like direct solicitation at a person’s home, an offer of money to the client for agreeing to sign up, paying non-lawyers for referrals, etc. This type of illegal activity has been prosecuted in the past, but detecting the illegal activity is very difficult and wildly under-reported.
What this bill does is create the least-intrusive system to fight the problem. It provides that police reports are not to be released to anyone, except for the people involved and their insurance companies, for a 30-day period. We are strongly in favor of the bill and are disappointed that it is not yet signed into law. Last term, the bill made it out of committee and passed almost unanimously in both houses of the New Jersey legislature. But unfortunately, it was “pocket vetoed” by Governor Chris Christie.