NEW ORLEANS — The Danziger Bridge is one of the routes commonly used by 18-wheel trucks when they pass through eastern New Orleans. It was on this bridge on June 12, 2017 that a video camera mounted on a truck owned by Triple G Express captured an unusual situation.
As the westbound freight truck reached the top of the bridge, two vehicles can be seen parked in the right-hand lane near the bottom. As the truck changes lanes and passes them, the vehicles start to roll in tandem.
“Come to find out that both vehicles were involved in it together and planned it, so that kind of tells you the story there,” said Triple G owner Randy Guilliot.
Seconds after the truck clears them, a second video from a nearby store captures the moment right before impact, showing the first vehicle speeding up to collide into the back of the truck.
Guilliot said his video camera captured a “staged accident.”
“One vehicle being involved in the incident, fraudulently, intentionally, and the second vehicle being a 'quote' innocent bystander,” he said.
“Those cameras right there saved between $150,000 and $200,000 just by capturing the fraud and us not having to go and defend it.”
Three people in the vehicle that collided with the truck filed a lawsuit, claiming their injuries resulted in more than $100,000 in medical treatments.
Baton Rouge attorney Doug Williams, the defense attorney for Triple G Express, said the video of the accident turned the case completely around.
“The plaintiffs in that case didn't know that we had this videotape,” Williams said. “When we took their depositions, everybody in that car denied that they had stopped on the bridge.”
After the video was shown to the attorney representing the plaintiffs, Daniel Patrick Keating, his law firm, Nugent Keating, withdrew from the case. Ultimately, the plaintiffs abandoned their claim.
“Those cameras right there saved between $150,000 and $200,000 just by capturing the fraud and us not having to go and defend it,” Williams said.
Williams said this case is just one example of a rash of accidents being staged by a connected circle of con artists, fake fender-benders that contribute to Louisiana's high insurance rates.
Recently named the president of the American Trucking Association, Guilliot says truck drivers who pass through New Orleans are always on guard. Most of the suspicious accidents occur along a narrow stretch of eastern New Orleans, on I-10 and portions of Chef Menteur and Old Gentilly Road, he said.
“New Orleans, quite frankly, is known across the country as probably the worst area for fraud,” Williams said.
Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said accident fraud adds $600 a year per family in car insurance costs. Now, thanks to federal and state authorities, Donelon sees a chance to get a handle on the problem.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney's office indicted five people for insurance fraud in an almost identical case to the Danziger accident exposed on video.
The 11-page indictment spells it out: six days before the Triple G accident, four people from Houma claimed they were hit by an 18-wheeler in almost identical fashion.
It was the same location, same claim of being side-swiped, same claims of soft-tissue injuries requiring extensive medical treatment and the same attorney: Keating.
“New Orleans, quite frankly, is known across the country as probably the worst area for fraud."
Keating demanded a million dollars each for three of the passengers, according to the indictment. One of the defendants actually “underwent neck surgery because Attorney A told her that she would get more money through the lawsuit if she had the surgery,” the indictment alleges.
“It's always interesting that three or four people all seem to have the same injuries and the same treatment needed for all of them,” Williams said.
The indictment states that on the day of the crash, Keating was on the phone with Damian Labeaud, including one call just before the accident. Labeaud, 47, was arrested and charged as the ringleader in the case.
Labeaud was identified by Williams as the “witness” in the Danziger Bridge case less than a week later.
“When you take the videotape, you take the phone records, you take a number of other things including Mr. Labeaud's background and his involvement with an accident just six days earlier than ours, the pattern becomes pretty clear,” Williams said.
Labeaud has a history. After serving a 7-year prison sentence for manslaughter in the 1990s, Labeaud emerged as a plaintiff in five accident lawsuits in eight years. Labeaud settled his claims, but when his relatives and associates started filing almost identical accident lawsuits – sometimes with Labeaud as a witness – defense attorneys started connecting the dots and fighting back.
Neither Labeaud nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
“It is their position that this is all one great giant scheme,” WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret said. “That this was an ATM machine set up by one individual or several individuals.”
In the accident case in the indictment, phone records were obtained by attorneys for the trucking company. Those records show a series of calls between Labeaud, the passengers in the car, and the attorney, Keating.
WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret says the red flags were obvious.
“We know that there were phone calls immediately prior to the accident and before and immediately post-accident, right after the accident where Damian Labeaud is talking to Daniel Patrick Keating,” Foret said.
The indictment goes even farther: it says Labeaud actually drove the car into the 18-wheeler, then had one of the passengers jump behind the wheel to pretend she was the driver. Labeaud claimed to be a witness. After giving statements to police, the group met with Keating, identified in the indictment only as 'Attorney A.'
Attorney A paid Labeaud $7,500 right after the accident, according to the indictment. Subsequent settlement payments to three of the four passengers are now the basis for five counts of wire fraud.
Keating has not been charged. His attorney, Brian Capitelli, declined comment.
“When that system is abused, we all wind up paying the price tag,” said Lana Venable, director of the non-profit Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch.
Venable said that fraud is a big factor in Louisiana having the second-highest car insurance rates in the country.
But the ongoing federal investigation may chip away at that. Dozens of lawsuits have been flagged by defense attorneys as suspicious for fraud. As those attorneys shared information and found repeat plaintiffs and accident patterns, they began fighting back in court.
“You have so many similar parties. So many similar claimants. So many similar lawyers,” Foret said.
Depositions and subpoenas for phone records have helped turn the tables in some lawsuits, leading to successful counter-claims and dropped suits.
“When that system is abused, we all wind up paying the price tag.”
Last month’s indictment tracked the findings of the civil lawsuit counter-claims against Labeaud and his four co-defendants, Lucinda Thomas, Mary Wade, Judy Williams and Dashontae Young. Thomas is identified as the defendant who underwent neck surgery.
The case is anticipated to be just the tip of the iceberg. In an unprecedented move, eight similar truck accident lawsuit suits have been stayed by federal judges due to the ongoing criminal investigation.
“They have pulled these pieces together, and that the information continues to grow, Williams said. “Hopefully a lot of people will be held accountable.”
Watch part two of Mike Perlstein's investigative series "Highway Robbery" Wednesday night