Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Shady Cases of a Trump Lawyer's Personal Injury Practice

By Seth Hettena

A few years before he started working for Donald Trump, and long before he gave legal advice to people like Fox News personality Sean Hannity, Michael D. Cohen had a different kind of clientele. Cohen roamed the courthouses of New York City, filing lawsuits on behalf of people with little means who were seeking compensation for the injuries they suffered in car collisions. Many personal-injury lawyers make their living this way, but there was something striking about Cohen's cases: Some of the crashes at issue didn't appear to be accidents at all.

A Rolling Stone investigation found that Cohen represented numerous clients who were involved in deliberate, planned car crashes as part of an attempt to cheat insurance companies. Furthermore, investigations by insurers showed that several of Cohen's clients were affiliated with insurance fraud rings that repeatedly staged "accidents." And at least one person Cohen represented was indicted on criminal charges of insurance fraud while the lawsuit he had filed on her behalf was pending. Cohen also did legal work for a medical clinic whose principal was a doctor later convicted of insurance fraud for filing phony medical claims on purported "accident" victims. Taken together, a picture emerges that the personal attorney to the president of the United States was connected to a shadowy underworld of New York insurance fraud, a pervasive problem dominated by Russian organized crime that was costing the state's drivers an estimated $1 billion a year.

Cohen was never charged with any wrongdoing in any of these cases and there is no evidence that he knowingly filed false claims, which potentially could be grounds for criminal charges and disbarment. It was unclear whether any materials dating from his days as a personal-injury attorney were among the items seized in an April 9th raid on Cohen's offices, home and hotel room. Messages left with Cohen and his attorney were not returned.

In one case, Cohen filed a bodily injury lawsuit on behalf of a woman named Tara Pizzingrillo, who was a passenger in a car that was struck by a rented vehicle in 1999 in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the 2002 complaint Cohen drafted and filed, Pizzingrillo sued the driver of the rental, Brian McFarland, claiming that she suffered bulging discs, and demanding $1 million from Enterprise Rent-A-Car's parent company, ELRAC Inc.

While the case was making its way through the courts, however, both Pizzingrillo and McFarland were indicted for their roles in a criminal ring that staged accidents using rented U-Haul trucks. Pizzingrillo, McFarland and others took turns renting U-Hauls, and, after obtaining insurance coverage, plowed them into vehicles occupied by friends in order to file bogus injury claims. Damian S. Jackson, who prosecuted the case when he worked at the New York Attorney General's office, did not recall Cohen's lawsuit, but said the events it described were typical of the ring's scheme. "They were basically being crash test dummies in each collision," Jackson says. The U-Haul ring submitted more than $350,000 in fraudulent personal injury claims before they were caught. Both Pizzingrillo and McFarland pleaded guilty to third degree insurance fraud, and Cohen's lawsuit was withdrawn. Pizzingrillo did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Not only did Cohen represent clients in staged accidents, but some of his clients may not have been in the vehicle when the phony crash occurred.

Read the rest here.

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