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Judge blocks Hillsborough's effort to crack down on staged car crashes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's attempt to crack down on staged auto accidents hit a courtroom wall this week.

A Circuit Court judge issued a temporary injunction against the county Wednesday, preventing it from enforcing licensing requirements for clinics that do most of their business treating people injured in car crashes.

The ruling, issued orally but not yet in writing, effectively stops the county from licensing clinics, some of which law enforcement officials say facilitate fraudulent insurance claims stemming from staged wrecks.

"We're standing down until we get further direction from the court," said Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the county's Consumer Protection Agency, which was in charge of reviewing applications. "We're just going to step back and obviously not enforce the provisions of the ordinance."

The local ordinance was aimed at clinics that prescribe treatments for dubious injuries so that the "victims" can file bogus insurance claims. In some cases, some in law enforcement believe, clinic operators and those involved in car crashes worked in cahoots with middlemen to game the system.

So commissioners adopted the ordinance in September 2011 that, among other things, required clinics to list a responsible physician, submit employees to criminal background checks and operate with regular hours.

County officials claim that the ordinance has led to a sharp drop in staged accidents in Hillsborough, which, along with Miami-Dade, had become ground zero for staged crashes.

But as many as 30 clinic operators sued, saying that licensing of medical facilities is the state's responsibility and not the county's. They also said the guidelines for granting or denying a license were arbitrary and subjective, with unclear means to challenge a denial.

Luke Lirot, an attorney representing the clinics, said the ordinance violated his clients' constitutional due process rights.

He also said there was no evidence showing the rules did anything to further the stated goal.

"The goal was laudable," Lirot said. "But (the ordinance) was just far too overbroad and far too defective a tool to advance the cause of preventing fraud."

By definition, in issuing his order, Circuit Judge William Levens found that the clinic operators had a substantial likelihood of prevailing with their lawsuit.

Cracking down on staged auto accidents, and the insurance fraud that results, has been a priority of elected officials from Gov. Rick Scott on down.

Scott made similar legislation a priority during the most recent legislative session, ultimately signing a bill that included stricter licensing provisions for clinics, required medical treatment within 14 days of a crash and cut out payments for acupuncture and massage therapy.

Florida requires motorists to carry $10,000 worth of personal injury protection as part of their auto insurance policies.

According to law enforcement, perpetrators of fraud will stage crashes then, sometimes with the help of clinic operators, put in claims against their policies for treatment that is not necessary. Often, bills from the clinic approach the $10,000 in coverage.

Locally, Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, championed county-based licensing requirements to add another layer of enforcement.

"It's my commitment to protect Hillsborough County citizens against insurance fraud," Beckner said in reaction to the court ruling. "And I will continue to work with law enforcement to stop the thugs who perpetrate these crimes."

Some 70 clinics had sought and been approved for licenses under the ordinance, which exempted medical providers whose businesses don't rely on crashes or that carry some other forms of accreditation.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Judge blocks Hillsborough's effort to crack down on staged car crashes 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 11:44pm]
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