By Andrew Longstreth
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's a scene that is both predictable and, for some critics, unseemly: After a major accident or other disaster, lawyers swoop in, seeking to represent victims or their loved ones who may want to file a lawsuit.
Indeed, in the hours following the Metro-North train derailment just outside Manhattan on Sunday that claimed four lives and critically injured 11, New York lawyers began marketing their services on the Internet, delivering messages of sympathy along with descriptions of their law practices.
In New York, as in several other states, lawyers are barred from directly soliciting business from victims for 30 days following an accident. That rule was enacted in the wake of a fatal ferry crash in New York Harbor in 2003 that claimed 11 lives and touched off what many considered a feeding frenzy by lawyers trawling for clients.
But that prohibition has generally been interpreted as applying to in-person and targeted solicitations, not general marketing or advertising, say legal ethics experts.
So while many critics, including the more button-downed legal establishment, frown on the practice of soliciting, for lawyers who make their living representing accident victims - and who claim a portion of whatever money their clients recover in court - the fatal train derailment was a call to action.
Personal-injury law firm Omrani & Taub, for instance, on Monday published a blog post about the legal procedures for suing the parent of Metro-North, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
The "team of attorneys at Omrani & Taub, P.C., who have vast experience successfully suing the MTA and Metro-North," the firm wrote, "should be consulted by anyone wishing to sue the MTA, Metro-North or any of its employees."
Another New York personal-injury lawyer, David Perecman, stated in a news release that he has been representing injury victims in train accidents for over 30 years.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the survivors and the families and the friends of the victims of the recent train derailment during this difficult time," Perecman said. "We stand ready to help those in need as the causes of this accident are still investigated."
OFFER OF SERVICES
And anyone searching for the terms "Metro-North or "train derailment" on YouTube since Sunday may have come across a video of New York attorney Mitchell Proner speaking about his legal experience. The video makes no reference to the accident, but it includes a phone number next to the phrase "Metro-North Train Derailment Bronx, NY - Call Lawyer."
Both Proner and a lawyer from Omrani & Taub said their messages did not constitute solicitation and were appropriate and even helpful. The public "has a right to know what's going on," Proner said. Perecman did not respond to a request for comment.
Legal ethics rules in New York define the prohibited solicitation after an accident as any communication "that is directed to, or targeted at, a specific recipient or group of recipients, or their family members or legal representatives, the primary purpose of which is the retention of the lawyer or law firm, and a significant motive for which is pecuniary gain."
That definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and one legal ethics scholar said that news releases and other messages touting a firm's expertise or describing the right to sue are not banned.
An improper solicitation "is targeted at one person or small number of persons with regard to a particular matter," said Stephen Gillers of New York University School of Law in an email. An acceptable advertisement, on the other hand, "is directed at the general public or a significant part of it," he said.
A spokeswoman for the New York State Bar Association, which develops professional guidelines for lawyers in the state, said the association had not received any complaints about solicitations stemming from the Metro-North accident.
The association did, however, issue what a spokeswoman described as a routine warning to its 76,000 members to avoid "unwarranted solicitation" of victims.
"It is important for all of us in the legal community to recognize the importance of respecting the privacy of the victims and their families," association President David Schraver said in a statement. "The decision to retain counsel is an important one and should not be made under pressure."
(Reporting by Andrew Longstreth: Editing by Eric Effron and Philip Barbara)