Trucking Truth News has reported recently on several high-dollar truck accident lawsuit settlements, with several of the high-profile lawsuits originating in the New Orleans area; which has been hard hit by what, for all intents and purposes, appear to be a rash of fraudulent lawsuits.
That pattern of seeming insurance fraud has come to the attention of United States District Attorney's Office investigators, and federal judges presiding over several Louisiana truck accident cases have put those cases on hold pending investigations into the trucking accident "victims'" alleged fraudulent practices.
WDSU Investigates, a WDSU News department, has accessed court documents that show the investigations into these activities is expanding.
"I don't think we are the sole venue for insurance fraud and staged accident claims, it really is across the country," attorney Harry Rosenberg, a former United States attorney for Southeast Louisiana, told WDSU Investigates. "We do seem to have a disproportionate share down here."
"I think it is a pattern really, impacts billions of dollars," he added.
Last month federal judges hearing three civil cases put them on hold pending the ongoing federal investigation. But WDSU Investigates learned that there are as many as a dozen cases being delayed now by eight different federal judges – cases that mostly involve cars getting into accidents with big rigs on the area interstates.
Typically, the ones filing lawsuits claim that trucks swerved into their lanes and hit them. But these accidents, resulting in many lawsuits locally follow a pattern in proximity to location and types of claims; which has sparked an FBI investigation beginning this year.
Emboldened by recent investigations into these dozen cases, defense attorneys and trucking companies say federal investigators should look into the 100 or so recent lawsuits that appear to be connected by a fraudulent similarity.
"You start seeing a pattern not only at the same or similar locations within the city and outlying areas, but you see a pattern of the same type of claims," Rosenberg told WDSU Investigates.
Insurance rates higher in Louisiana
Insurance companies and Louisiana trucking companies are following these investigations with interest.
Chance McNeely, a spokesman for one such trucking group, the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, told WDSU Investigates, "In Louisiana, we estimate our insurance costs are three to five times more than the national average."
"We are down to a place where we only have one or two, perhaps three at the most, insurance companies that will insure a truck that is domiciled in Louisiana," McNeely said. "In the rest of the country, 10 to 15 companies operate, so we are at a major disadvantage down here."
The problem of fraudulent lawsuits against truckers is so bad it could mean some Louisiana trucking companies might have to go out of business.
"We have seen several companies close their doors," McNeely told WDSU Investigates. "When you are paying $20,000 to $30,000 to insure a truck, when they rest of the country is paying $4,000 to $5,000, Louisiana trucking companies are at a major disadvantage and it is hard to be profitable."
A typical fraudulent lawsuit
In October a federal grand jury indicted five people who received settlements after staging an accident in 2017 on Chef Highway in the New Orleans area. Some of the awardees had already cashed their settlement checks.
The "victims" of the truck accident were mostly all residents of Houma, Louisiana, except Damian K. Labeaud, 47, who resided in New Orleans. The other defendants are Lucinda Thomas, 63; Mary Wade, 55; Judy Williams, 59; and Dashontae Young, 25.
The charges against them include one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and six counts of wire fraud. Maximum penalty, if convicted, is five years for the conspiracy, and 20 years for the wire fraud. After their release from prison each defendant can be placed on supervised release for five years and can be fined up to $250,000 per count.
According to the indictment, Thomas, Wade, Williams and Young met with Labeaud on June 6, 2017, for the purpose of staging an accident with a truck. They drove around the area of Chef Menteur Highway and Downman Road in New Orelans until they spotted a 2017 Freightliner tractor-trailer that would serve their purposes.
Around 12:30 pm they intentionally collided with the big rig, then called the New Orleans Police Department to report that the truck had struck their vehicle. Lebeaud offered himself as a witness to testify that the driver of the truck had been responsible for the accident.
The accident was staged in collusion with an attorney who had met with four of the conspirators at a fast food restaurant nearby before the accident; where the attorney paid Lebeaud $7,500 for the part he would play in the accident.
The attorney then demanded around $1 million each for Thomas, Wade and Williams, and then filed lawsuits for the three against the trucking company.
At the end, after a year of litigation Thomas, Wade and Williams each received $7,500 in settlements, but have since been charged with providing false testimony in depositions during the lawsuit, in addition to the wire fraud charges.
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