Staged accidents lead Florida's PIP fraud

Feb 16, 2012

It seems nearly everyone at the Florida Capitol now agrees that personal injury protection or “PIP” insurance fraud is a big problem.  Tom Flanigan reports the only thing those people disagree about is how to fix the problem.

The scene is the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy, named after former State Senator Pat Thomas, just west of Tallahassee.  Dozens of people are huddled under a leaky tent as a heavy rain falls.  A Florida Highway Patrol trooper tells the crowd what’s about to happen…

“One car approaches a four-way stop sign as another approaches.  That vehicle that has the right-of-way waves the other vehicle forward.  As that vehicle enters the intersection, the other vehicle enters the intersection, striking it intentionally.”

Two Highway Patrol cruisers with reinforced bumpers then do what the officer just described.
  
This is just one technique used by scammers trying to collect a quick ten-thousand bucks in personal injury protection or PIP coverage.  No one is hurt in the accident, but whoever was in the scammer’s car – the one that actually caused the phony accident – says they were.  Here’s another trick.  Two cars, both driver by scammers, have a low-speed collision.  Suddenly people appear, seemingly from nowhere,and jump into the passenger seats. 

When police arrive, everyone in the cars staggers out, complaining of horrible injuries.  Again, no one is really hurt.  Then there’s the maneuver called “Swoop and Go”…

“A vehicle will swoop in front of the other two and hit their brakes.  This causes the first vehicle to have to slow suddenly, causing a collision.  The vehicles that swoops, causing the first vehicle to stop, then leaves the scene.”

In this case, a speeding pickup truck cuts off the first patrol cruiser, which is rear-ended by the second…
  
Scammers are in the cars that collided convincingly spill out of their vehicles, feigning injury.  Governor Rick Scott and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater were among those watching these staged accidents.  The governor says he’s seen and heard similar things all over the state…

“We were just talking about one story of a lady who was just worried about going out because she was worried about being involved in a staged accident, someone intentionally having an accident with her. And then we talked with another lady who moved from Tallahassee to Tampa and she said the PIP portion tripled on her insurance.”

Florida Highway Patrol Colonel David Brierton says PIP fraud has become a huge enforcement problem for agencies like his.  Especially in Central and South Florida.

“And in addition to the costs, there’s the potential for serious injuries and what we’re going to work on is training law enforcement officers to identify the characteristics that are attached to these type scams and also create public awareness so it can be reported and we can investigate them.”

But there are two competing measures now before Florida lawmakers to address the PIP fraud problem.  Governor Scott has his preference:

“The house bill does a better job at this.  Right now I’m hopeful that they’ll come together and have a great bill, but we’ve got to crack down on providers that are taking advantage of the system.  We’ve got to crack down on lawyers that are taking advantage of the system.”

The house bill requires accident victims to seek medical attention at a hospital emergency room, or hospital affiliated care center, within seventy-two hours of the wreck.  There’d be no payment for massage therapists, acupuncturists or chiropractors.  And the house bill would cap attorney fees and allow insurance companies to question claimants under oath.  Bill Newton with the Florida Consumer Action Network thinks that’s not the best solution.

“The house bill really cuts benefits for consumers, it cuts away what we would get under PIP and it does virtually nothing to fight fraud.”

Newton’s group is part of a coalition that includes doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths and trial lawyers.  They’re more inclined to favor the other chamber’s PIP fraud bill…

“One of the things we have in the senate bill is we do have stricter penalties on people that do commit fraud and we have more support for law enforcement.”  

That support funded in large part by the insurance industry.   With these significant differences between the two bills, a compromise acceptable to both sides of the Capitol may be tough.  Senate Banking and Insurance Committee Chair Garrett Richter likened it to changing a tire on a moving car.  A car that hopefully would not be involved in a staged wreck.