Anyone engaged in the trucking and transportation industry in Louisiana is familiar with the recent run of staged accidents. A mix of Federal attorneys, the FBI, and local law enforcement have been investigating and prosecuting many individuals accused of purposefully staging accidents or otherwise making false claims to injury and vehicle damage “caused” by large commercial vehicles. These incidents mainly occurred on the interstate or one or two other specific locations where conditions made fraudulent claims easier to allege. Several of these plaintiffs have been indicted, with a handful already entering pleas to their crimes.
However, these prosecutions are not easy to investigate or prove. This difficulty owes not just to the nature of fraud itself, but also to the patchwork of laws at both the local and Federal level which intertwine to provide the legal basis to bring charges. There simply has not been a law tailored directly to these cases. But this is likely to change soon.
Louisiana State Representative Sherman Mack of Livingston Parish has proposed House Bill No. 15, providing for the crime of “staging of a motor vehicle accident.” This bill provides two new laws under Louisiana’s criminal statutes (Title 14).
The first law is designated as R.S. 14:68.4.1. This first statute defines “staging of a motor vehicle accident” as one of three distinct actions:
- Causing a motor vehicle collision for the purpose of obtaining anything of value;
- Participating in a scheme to create documentation of a motor vehicle collision that did not occur for the purpose of obtaining anything of value; and
- Participating with an intent to defraud by engaging in 1) making or assisting in making a claim for insurance benefits or monetary damages and/or 2) Attempting or assisting in attempting to obtain any benefit to which the claimant is not legally entitled.
Portions of this language are somewhat vague. This is particularly true of the third grounds for the crime, which does not specifically reference participation in accident staging. We hope some more clarification might come in the form of later amendments.
Then the penalty: commission of the crime has a sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine up to five thousand dollars. This sentence is with or without hard labor—meaning it is not necessarily a felony, depending on the judge’s discretion at sentencing. In practice, nearly all such “relative felonies” are sentenced as felonies upon conviction.
The second statute is designated R.S. 14:68.4.2, entitled “aggravated staging of a motor vehicle.” This enhanced crime consists of staging a motor vehicle collision as defined in the prior statute, but which additionally causes death or serious bodily injury. In this instance, the penalty ranges from five to thirty years, with or without hard labor, and a fine of up to fifteen thousand dollars.
Under either of these statutes, participants in staged accidents would be eligible for probation and/or parole. Neither proposed law, unfortunately, provides for any specific restitution or other victim compensation requirements or standards. Any driver, company, or insurer would have to rely on Louisiana’s general restitution articles in obtaining any monetary relief in the criminal court. These laws generally lack teeth and apply only to what the victim has lost out of pocket. Victims would be left heading to civil court for additional, less “tangible” damages.
Also notably missing is a modification of Louisiana’s Racketeering laws (La. R.S. 15:1352 et seq.) to add these crimes to the specific violations prosecutable thereunder. Any broader schemes (an “enterprise,” under the statutes), which are apparent in the open Federal indictments, should be prime targets under Racketeering prosecutions. Convicting someone for Racketeering activity not only provides for one of the heftiest sentences under Louisiana law, but also allows for treble damages on the civil end to those harmed by the criminal conduct (See La. R.S. 15:1356(E)).
These stiff penalties and restitution provisions might keep the more capable and sophisticated players away from making these false claims. Furthermore, without being specifically included, those committing staged accident fraud might argue that the Legislature did not intend for victims to be able to prove/collect civil racketeering damages under the Racketeering statute. The crime of staging motor vehicle accidents would be a welcome addition to R.S. 15:1352.
HR 15 was “pre-filed” in February, 2021, and awaits hearings once the Louisiana Legislature gears up for business in the coming months. We will be following this bill to see how it might be amended, for better or worse. Stay tuned for more information.