Benzinga, August 24, 2020
By John Kingston
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans late last week indicted 11 individuals in connection with a scam to create crashes between cars and 18-wheelers and cash in on insurance payments.
The indictment, handed down by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Peter Strasser is for alleged “staged” accidents with tractor-trailers going back to 2017.
The indictment alleges seven counts of mail fraud against each of the individuals because the funds used to pay them were sent via the U.S. Postal Service.
The latest indictments follow a guilty plea by Damian Labeaud earlier this month to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Press coverage in New Orleans at the time of Labeaud’s guilty plea made several references to the prospect that he had agreed to plead guilty to only one charge because he was cooperating with prosecutors in identifying other individuals involved.
The Labeaud guilty plea follows earlier indictments that had caught up six individuals connected to the scheme.
The latest indictment handed down Friday makes for some intriguing reading, spelling out the way the plan allegedly worked. It involved individuals who were classified as “slammers,” described in the indictment as “an individual who drove a vehicle and intentionally collided with 18-wheel tractor-trailers in order to stage accidents,” and “spotters,” described as “an individual who would follow a slammer in a separate vehicle and would pick up the slammer after the staged accident in order to flee the scene and evade detection.”
Louisiana’s high truck insurance rates recently led the state to implement several tort reform steps that the Louisiana Motor Trucking Association supported.
The indictment also says the operation was directed by five attorneys who are not identified by name but were said to be personal injury lawyers in the state, spread out over two separate law firms. The attorneys are identified only as A, B, C, D and E.
New Orleans television station WWL has reported that New Orleans attorney Daniel Patrick Keating is likely one of the attorneys who had been in regular contact with Lebeaud at the time of the staged accidents, based on cellphone records and civil suit documents. The television station reported that Keating has declined several requests to comment.
Lebeaud is identified by name in the latest indictment but is not a defendant, having pleaded out. But the recap of what the indicted individuals are charged with spell out how he worked with some of them in what the indictment says was “scheme and artifice to defraud.”
According to the indictment, Labeaud and defendant Roderick Hickman would get $1,000 per passenger for accidents with tractor-trailers and $500 per passenger for accidents that did not involve tractor-trailers.
The indictment says the pair brought 20 cases to the attorneys. But that’s just a small portion of what the indictment said were 100 accidents that the pair staged.
Attorneys, Labeaud and Hickman would communicate using fishing terms, the indictment said. The indictment gives some examples of text messages between Labeaud and one of the attorneys: “How u doin today homie? I got 2 real nice big one for u rite now bro I will see u n about 1 hour OK?” According to the indictment, this exchange took place soon after one of the staged accidents.
The attorneys “directed Labeaud to change the locations of the staged accidents, to vary the number of passengers, to avoid talking to the police and to avoid cameras,” the indictment said.
The rest of the indictment is filled with stories that are sure to leave truck drivers shaking their heads in disbelief. Labeaud allegedly saw a Freightliner pulling onto a highway and intentionally collided with it. He did the same with a 2017 Peterbilt. In both cases, there were passengers in the car who the indictment said were part of the scheme. They allegedly would change seats in the car after the crash so that different individuals would appear to be the driver in all cases, while Labeaud would get away from the site.
According to a prepared statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the lawyers “in some cases … knew that the participants were uninjured but referred them to medical providers for treatment to increase the value of subsequent lawsuits.”
As a result, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, insurers and trucking companies paid out $277,500 because of these “fraudulent claims.”