Hillsborough loses bid to crack down on accident fraud
TAMPA — A Hillsborough County law designed to reduce staged-accident fraud is in trouble.
On Friday, the state’s Second District Court of Appeals upheld an injunction issued in January that blocked enforcement of the ordinance. The appeals court issued no written opinion in affirming the injunction.
“Where they do that, there is no further avenue to go, to the state Supreme Court or anyplace else,” said Rob Brazel, county managing attorney of the litigation division.
Brazel said the county now will look at amending the ordinance, which sought to rid the county of pain clinics thought to be tied to staged-accident fraud. Amending the ordinance will require county commission approval.
Meanwhile, Luke Lirot, attorney for the plaintiffs, declared victory Monday.
“I would certainly opine that the nature of the circuit court’s opinion means the writing is on the wall,” Lirot said. “There is no legislative way the county commission can repair this misguided effort.”
Commissioners passed the ordinance in September 2011 in an effort to stop accidents staged to collect money under Florida’s personal injury protection insurance law, commonly known as PIP. Law enforcement and the insurance industry said criminal gangs defrauding PIP were aided by phony clinics that billed insurance companies for bogus medical care.
But Lirot’s plaintiffs — about 25 clinics, several doctors and a chiropractor — argued that the county ordinance unlawfully sought to pre-empt state law under which they are licensed.
“It treats the clinic owners in Hillsborough County different than any other clinic owners in the state,” Lirot said. “And just the way the county reviewed the applications and made some accommodations for some applicants and not others, we felt it wasn’t being fairly applied.”
The plaintiffs also felt the law was treating some of them unfairly, refusing their county registration to work under the new law because of earlier transgressions such as drug abuse or sexual harassment for which the doctors had atoned.
“They could deny licenses based on issues that occurred decades ago that had nothing to do with fraud and had been remedied to the state’s satisfaction,” Lirot said.
County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who pushed to pass the ordinance at the request of the Sheriff’s Office and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, would not comment about the appeals court decision other than to say the county was “reviewing all our legal options.”