Ambulance chasers

Marcel Berlins takes a crash course in fraud; Accidentally on Purpose: the making of a personal injury underworld in America by Ken Dornstein, Macmillan, pounds 19.50
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There is a scene in the 1967 film Meet Whiplash Willie (in England, The Fortune Cookie) in which an ambulance-chasing shyster lawyer played by Walter Matthau is trying to persuade a football player slightly hurt during a game to launch a lawsuit for compensation for his injuries. "I hate to break it to you, kid, but you got a spinal injury ... your left leg is numb and you got no feeling in the first three fingers of your right hand." "You're crazy," the Jack Lemmon character replies, "I can move my hand. And my leg." "Sure you can - if you want to blow a million bucks ... that's what we're suing for."

The craze for litigation based on whiplash - neck - injuries lasted through the Sixties and Seventies. Insurance companies paid out billions of dollars to claimants who were inventing their injuries entirely or, at best, creatively exaggerating them. But the whiplash phenomenon was just one small part of an unpublicised American industry: a criminal underworld devoted to the faking of personal injuries.

This is not a book about a few slippery lawyers and doctors conspiring with greedy accident victims to talk up their symptoms and prognoses in order to exact additional compensation. Those scams exist but are the small beer of the trade. What Ken Dornstein describes in Accidentally on Purpose is a veritable gangland of ruthless, sophisticated operators using modern methods to defraud insurance companies out of huge sums.

Here is one example: the "capper" is the planner, the choreographer, whose job is to stage an accident that will look like the real thing and lead to multiple claims. He hires "dummies", the victims, often poor Hispanic immigrants. For as little as $100 each, they will pack into a car ("the squat car") that they know will be involved in an accident. The capper then hires a specialist driver whose job is to provoke an innocent trucker into crashing into the squat car.

The logistics are carefully planned: where, when and what kind of impact is required. The accident achieved, the dummies file their injury claims with the help of dishonest lawyers. Of course, they don't receive a cent of the proceeds. Occasionally, the staging goes wrong and the dummies are hurt badly or even killed. Recently, an attorney who masterminded these "swoop-and-squat" operations was indicted for his part in the death of a passenger in a squat car.

Dornstein started his career as a private investigator in Los Angeles, looking into suspicious accidents. His book describes dozens of varieties of contemporary scams. But his exhaustive historical trawl is even more intriguing.

The sheer imagination and expertise of some past fraudsters is impressive. In the early, jolting days of rail travel, there was "railway spine", an alleged injury caused by sudden movements. "Slip-and-fallers" have been around for a century: "Banana Annie" carried her own peels for slipping on.

One frequent claimant was capable, at will, both of dislocating her bones, and of haemorrhaging. Another regular had the advantage of a neck which, under X-ray, always showed up as broken. During the Depression years the fad was for self-mutilation, with the cleverer claimants managing to cash in from several companies on the basis of one "accidental" amputation.

Along the way, Dornstein divertingly investigates the terminology of his subject. The term "ambulance chaser" - originally not the lawyer, but his tout - entered the language in the 1890s and was in common use by 1910. Shyster, to mean a dishonest lawyer, did not come, as is usually believed, from the nefarious activities of Sheuster, a New York attorney; Dornstein has discovered an earlier use and, besides, can find no trace of the existence of Sheuster.

Accidentally, on Purpose contains a great deal of information which has never before been assembled, on a topic which has never before been so scrutinised. Dornstein has done prodigious research (his references amount to 70 pages) and does not always resist the temptation to tell us too much. On the other hand the book is clearly written, contains many interesting and obscure facts, and provides an insight into yet another, hitherto secret, crooked world.