By Ken Stone
“I’m Patrick Steinfeld,” says the sharply dressed lawyer in a YouTube video posted Thursday. “I’m a truck safety advocate and attorney providing national and local representation to truck accident victims and their families.”The video is labeled “Nancy Bauerlein | Ramona | La Mesa | Accident | Attorney” — referencing Wednesday’s big-rig crash that cost Bauerlein and her adult daughter Jennifer their lives.
“I care about you. I believe in you,” Steinfeld says. “And I am here for you. Call me today.”
Within a few hours of Thursday’s naming of the victims, a half-dozen law firms had posted stories, Facebook notes or videos tailored to the incident. Steinfeld’s second video of the day, with the same 200-word script, cited the freeway crash’s 6-year-old injury victim and her mother: “Kristina Andarus | Aneta Andarus | El Cajon | Accident | Attorney.”
Los Angeles-based Pacific Attorney Group detailed the Freightliner tractor-trailer crash in La Mesa and said: “We offer our sympathies to the family and friends of the deceased. We will work with you until you receive the justice that you deserve.”Detecting a visitor online at 11 p.m., “Alicia” pops up in a chat box to ask: “Thanks for visiting our website. Is there anything that I can assist you with?” An exchange ensues, and she eventually types: “I am part of the live chat support team for the firm, I work off-site.”
At jacobyandmeyers.com, with 10 Southern California offices, a customized post says: “Our law firm would like to extend our deepest thoughts and condolences to the family and friends mourning the loss of Nancy Bauerlein and Jennifer Thompson-Campbell.”
Irvine-based Avrek Law Firm says: “Our staff extend our thoughts and prayers to the family of Nancy Jeanette Bauerlein, her passenger and everyone that was affected by this horrific accident…. Our team of highly experienced La Mesa truck accident lawyers are here to help you with anything that you need including medical care.”
At westallianceinjurylawyers.com of San Diego and Newport Beach, chatroom “Gina” replies to a reporter’s 11:20 p.m. queries: “I would be happy to forward your contact details and ask the lawyer to contact you directly.”
And in Texas, Michael Grossman’s fatal accident blog details the tragedy. “When I hear about accidents, I use this blog to write about them and provide a lawyer’s perspective,” he says. “What can I say? When you’re a
hammer lawyer, everything looks like a nail.”
It also looks like a ghoulish effort to harvest grief-stricken clients.
“What this [YouTube-posting] attorney is doing, I don’t see an ethical problem,” Carr said Friday, while noting technical rules. “If I had to watch these and do an analysis, maybe I can find a problem or two. In principle, I don’t see a problem with it.”
A legal ethicist for 28 years, including a dozen with the State Bar of California, Carr said in a phone interview that some people “go a little bit bonkers when an attorney uses music or some other way to get attention.”
He said people cry: “Oh, my God. That’s terrible! This attorney’s not dignified.”
That may be so, he said, but “that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with it.” (And don’t dare use the phrase “ambulance chasing,” which Carr calls insulting. “Rule 1-400c prohibits in-person solicitation. Advertising is not solicitation.”)
For his part, attorney Steinfeld of downtown San Diego’s itruckaccident.com told Times of San Diego: “I have a service to offer, and time is of the essence.”
He likened his urgency to that of a journalist chasing a big story.“You report the news when it’s newsworthy, not necessarily when it’s convenient to the subjects of your story,” Steinfeld said Thursday. “I need to be available to victims when I’m needed the most. And the most … critical need for counsel is immediately after a truck accident.”
Steinfeld, 62, contends that companies like Swift Transportation, whose driver was involved in Wednesday’s crash, immediately deploy a “rapid-response team” including a lawyer, investigator and “accident reconstructionist.”
“Their sole goal is to protect the interests of Swift, which is one of the largest motor carriers in the country,” he said. “And in addition, their goal is to discredit and minimize the potential claims of the victims.”
The California Highway Patrol’s investigation falls short, he said. “They’re not accident reconstructionists. They’re not professional engineers.”
Told of those comments, CHP Officer Ben Demarest, an agency spokesman, said: “We’re professionals. … We don’t have a third-party interest in finding someone at fault. Our job is to go out there and collect the facts.”Demarest confirmed what Steinfeld had heard in an NBC San Diego report — that a Swift vice president had said a safety team would have someone at the scene as soon as possible.
But the Swift team, delayed by rush-hour traffic, didn’t arrive until Wednesday evening — hours after the 2:30 p.m. accident, a company spokeswoman said Friday.
“I can’t tell you who all was deployed,” she said of the “full-press effort.”
“It wasn’t just from Swift,” based in Phoenix but with an Otay Mesa repair center. “It was also from all of our companies that have interest in helping us to solve this. … Everybody was having difficulty getting out there.”
She said different units of the company are “deeply concerned and deeply involved with the situation right now. Several of us have people on the ground and on the phones and online trying to figure out what happened and how we can prevent it in the future.”
“We are trying to figure out what we can do to help the families,” said the spokeswoman for Swift, which has 16,600 drivers and $4 billion in annual revenues.In any case, the team was barred from going on the freeway, said the CHP’s Demarest.
Truck specialist Steinfeld said he would never contact victims’ families directly — and didn’t expect them to be searching immediately for a lawyer.
“But friends and relatives, they may very well be online,” he said. “And all I’m doing is offering my services as a truck-accident lawyer for immediate action. And if that’s something the family is interested in, that’s fine. If not, then I certainly understand that.”
Steinfeld says he’s “not going to waste my time” putting up his generic video — along with dozens of SEO-friendly keywords in the YouTube description — if it appears the victims are at fault.
“What I saw here was it appeared that the fault would be on the truck driver because she admitted it to the police,” reportedly saying she lost control of her trailer.
He said most victims don’t contact an attorney for two weeks to maybe six months after an incident, “and by then it’s too late — because you can’t send an investigator or an accident reconstructionist to the scene in order to take photographs of the scene. Take measurements. Because all the skid marks, all the gouges are now gone.”
Writing in the company’s 2016 annual report, Swift President and CEO Richard Stocking said Swift was “ahead of the curve” on federal requirements. He said Swift limits the speed drivers may travel, has stringent drug and alcohol testing and “our trucks are fully equipped with stability control.”But Steinfeld notes (and Swift acknowledges) the trucking industry pays truckers by the mile and battles a driver shortage, so current workers are overtaxed and fight fatigue. Mechanical issues also arise. (A Facebook group is devoted to Swift truck accidents.)
A lawyer for almost 30 years, Steinfeld said he was a trucker himself during summers between college — and saw firsthand the effects of fatigue.
“My dad was an interstate truck driver, and he drove for Swift for many years,” he said.
When he was 18, Steinfeld said, he was driving with his dad at 2 or 3 a.m. The road had little traffic, so his exhausted dad engineered a way to catch a few winks.
“He would tape a lit cigarette … between his fingers so the burnt part was about a minute away from burning his skin,” the son said. “And he would literally just point the truck down the road and close his eyes, and he’d fall asleep for about a minute.”
When the cigarette began to burn his fingers, his father would wake up.
“It just scared me to death,” the son said. “I felt a calling of my own to help victims of truck accidents. Because I know what it’s like to be a truck driver.”
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