Two men sent to prison for staging a car crash in Lauderdale Lakes…

Dec 26, 2007


The Miami Herald

Two men sent to prison for staging a car crash in Lauderdale Lakes are the first in Broward County sentenced under a tough Florida law enacted to combat no-fault insurance fraud, prosecutors say.

Circuit Judge Stanton Kaplan sentenced Fedner Gelin and Serge Pierre earlier this month to three years in prison, then 10 years probation. He also ordered them to pay $20,000 to the insurance companies they cheated.

Phony car crashes happen more frequently in South Florida than anywhere else in the country, according to a study last year by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. But authorities say thousands of staged accidents on South Florida roadways go undetected every year, contributing to the $30 billion that’s lost annually to insurance fraud nationwide.

”It’s a huge problem in Broward,” says Philip Snyder, an assistant state attorney in the economic crimes unit.

Miami-Dade’s PIP fraud problem is much worse than Broward’s, according to figures from the Florida Department of Financial Services.

In 2007, for example, 127 people were arrested in Miami-Dade, including 96 for staging accidents. In Broward, 28 were arrested.

Faked accidents are hard to investigate, and tricky to prosecute, officials say. Insurance investigators often conduct the initial review after suspicions are raised, then turn over their findings to state agents and prosecutors, who try to make a criminal case.

The lure of easy money is fueling the rise in car crashes. But Snyder hopes the sentencing of Gelin, 36, of Sunrise, and Pierre, 31, of Lauderhill, sends a strong messageto those tempted to participate: if you’re convicted, it means you’ll be behind bars for at least two years.

Prosecutors say Gelin and Pierre were mid-level organizers who recruited and paid drivers and passengers, several of whom testified against them.

Pierre is an undocumented immigrant who faces deportation when his sentence is up. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.

So far, the doctors and clinic owners who allegedly profited most by billing insurance companies for bogus or nonexistent treatment have not been charged.

”The state knows the names of the docs, but they passed them over for an easy target and perhaps the least culpable,” said Gelin’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale’s Ralph Behr.

”Investigators apparently didn’t have enough [evidence] to go after them,” said prosecutor Snyder. “We’d love to go after the doctors if cases were presented to us.”

Nearly 16 million Florida drivers must purchase $10,000 of the controversial personal injury protection, or PIP. Insurance companies have complained the PIP law is shot-through with fraud and pushed unsuccessfully in Tallahassee this year to eliminate it.

Instead, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a new law in October that restores and reforms Florida’s no-fault system.

The reforms, which take effect next month, are aimed at so-called ”accident clinics” with limited facilities that bill PIP for treatments to ”victims” of staged accidents. To bill PIP in the future, clinics will have to provide a wider array of medical services to all kinds of patients.

In 2004, Florida changed its criminal law to require two-year minimum mandatory sentences for anyone convicted of participating in a staged accident to support a fraudulent insurance claim. It was under that change that Gelin and Pierre were sentenced.

More than 3,600 PIP fraud complaints were filed in the past fiscal year — up 37 percent from two years earlier, according to state figures.

”People would be astonished to see what we see,” Smith said. “There are a bunch of fraud rings that have done 50 or 100 accidents. That’s a lot of money.”

About 500 PIP fraud complaints involved staged accidents last year. Some 45 percent of those led to arrests in Florida.

Half of those arrested for staging accidents later were convicted — usually after agreeing to cooperate and being allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge without the two-year minimum mandatory sentence.

The case against Gelin and Pierre began Oct. 5, 2005, when authorities say they recruited five drivers and passengers, for about $500 apiece, for a crash that happened shortly before midnight on Northwest 47th Terrace, north of Oakland Park Boulevard.

No one was actually hurt in the low speed, rear-end collision, Snyder said.

And that’s typical in such planned accidents because ”everybody is in on it,” Smith said.

Several participants who were not charged later told authorities that Gelin and Pierre sent them to chiropractors and submitted false insurance claims totaling $48,300 to their insurers, Ocean Harbor Casualty of Sunrise, and Republic Western Insurance of Smyrna, Ga.

A jury convicted Gelin and Pierre of staging one accident. But prosecutor Snyder said the two were cogs in a much larger fraud scheme.

”These guys are organizers. There are many, many more accidents,” Snyder said. “The investigation is continuing.”