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New Trends in Highway Robbery

[Review of Ken Dornstein, "Accidentally, On Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America" (St. Martin's, 468 pp., $26.95). A slightly shorter version appeared in the Wall Street Journal, December 20, 1996].

Last year the FBI, with indictments in 31 states, launched a crackdown on a peculiarly American crime: organized car-crashing, now a multi-billion-dollar business. In "swoop-and-squats", a gang driver pulls in front of an unwary motorist and slams on the brakes. Claiming injury, he and his passengers set themselves up for a nice insurance settlement, then head out on the road for another "accident".

Sue Grafton ("H" Is for Homicide) and other novelists have tackled this gruesome subculture, and now Ken Dornstein fills the nonfiction gap with a remarkable new book, "Accidentally, On Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America" (St. Martin's, 468 pp., $26.95). This first-time author pulls together more colorful history in one book than most authors manage in four, yet someone at St. Martin's should be spanked for failing to edit out the repetitions and digressions that make it only a great browse instead of a great read.

Mr. Dornstein signed up in 1991, when still a senior at Brown, to work the L.A. accident scene as a street investigator. A tireless rummager among the archives of railway claims journals, he lays out a vast forgotten history of fraudulent personal-injury claims, dating back to Civil War days, full of characters like New Jersey's "Banana Anna", whose 17 peel-related mishaps landed her in women's prison, and the Tumbling Womacks of St. Louis.

Such freelancers were bad enough; then came the organizers. "The key figure in the evolution of the urban accident racket in the first decades of this century," writes Mr. Dornstein, "was the 'ambulance chaser'" who connected lawyers to lucrative cases, often purchasing "leads" from cops, nurses, and reporters, and sometimes cultivating the help of disloyal insurance adjusters and even streetcar or delivery drivers who might be induced to crash their vehicles.

Investigations into resulting abuses provoked a huge public reaction from the late 1920s to the 1930s, culminating in waves of disbarments, medical-license revocations, and prosecutions, most notably by racketbuster Thomas Dewey. But times changed, and by the 1970s elite law opinion had grown ashamed of the old chaser probes: Why not let insurance defense attorneys sort out which claims were invalid? Prosecutors, bench, bar and medical authorities all snoozed off.

Abuses grew bolder. A supposed religious charity, the "Friends of the Friendless", gave chasers the run of the giant Los Angeles County Medical Center; techniques included pressing an unconscious patient's inked thumb to a legal retainer and threatening those who said no with deportation. "I get as much as I give," a hospital newsletter quoted one Friend as saying about his visits: "both the patients and I are rewarded." In Illinois, runners took over the Community Hospital of Evanston, dispensing with doctors' supervision and discouraging "real" nurses from applying. ("You're going to be so bored here. There is nothing to do.") The driver of the courtesy van whisking clients from law offices told why he liked the job: "No one is really hurt" so "no one gets sick on me".

True-crime books usually aim to show how the dirty deed is done, and this one does not disappoint:

How do I get started? For a "paper" accident, try inflicting "controlled damage" on a couple of cars with a sledgehammer in a dark parking lot. Insert passengers. Summon a witness. Gather broken glass in bags for re-use.

That was easy, what next? "Staged" accidents: Buy rustbuckets, insure one and run it into another one full of recruited claimants-to-be ("cows"). If you're nice, give them pillows.

I need symptoms! "OK, you can take tingles, and you can take hips or your shoulder," said one coach to his aspiring victims. "But don't go saying the exact same things." And be glad you aren't being sent to one of the House of Pain operations that massage would-be claimants with sandpaper and jagged can lids or flog them with apple-filled sacks. Let alone "Nub City", the Florida town that, in the 1970s, could boast that something like 10% of its population had practiced self-amputation for insurance, typically popping a left hand with a hunting rifle.

Who to target for swoop-and-squats? Big trucks on freeways are most lucrative, but many prefer forcing collisions with affluent drivers of newish cars, especially women because of "their reluctance to dispute liability".

How do I keep from getting caught? Vary your fact patterns. Don't stamp a doctor's name on medical reports months after he's died. Don't lose your ledger -- needed to keep hundreds of accidents straight -- or your scripts and tip sheets.

Mr. Dornstein is kind enough to present -- at length, and even with some sympathy -- the response of the trial lawyers to all this fraud. Not surprisingly, they see the publicity given to such cases as an industry-orchestrated plot against them, "intended to destroy a branch of the law which has always been concerned with fair and compensatory damages," as one said. So this truly is a book with something for everybody. But not before meals.