Lawyer of the Day, Legal Ethics

Lawyer of the Day: Pwning Cruise Ship Crash Scammers

The crash of the cruise ship Costa Concordia January 13 was a real tragedy. More than a dozen people died, and more are still missing. The overturned ship is still languishing off the Mediterranean coast, like a set from an old disaster movie.

For most people, a tragedy like this might lead to feelings of empathy or shock. For many lawyers, on the other hand, the crash might conjure thought-bubbles full of dollar signs and random vocal outbursts, a la “I’m the king of the world!”

But one New York personal injury lawyer involved in helping real crash victims has become a hero of sorts for turning in a trio of Hungarian scammers allegedly hoping to cash in on the crash.

This guy is awesome. When people hate on attorneys, everyone should remember his name as a defense of the profession. So what exactly did our protagonist do to make him today’s Lawyer of the Day?

Peter Ronai runs a personal injury firm in Manhattan with his wife. He was visiting Budapest recently to represent six survivors of the crash, when he was contacted by a desperate woman asking for help.

The woman said her daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter were missing. At first, Ronai, who speaks Hungarian, was hoodwinked and very concerned. The story even made local headlines, because the woman said her family members were not on the ship’s manifest. So the cruise line stood to face accusations of carrying stowaways. But, just like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ronai started to realize something was not as it seemed (gavel bang: ABA Journal).

From the New York Post:

He said his suspicions were quickly raised when the woman and the man posing as the child’s father, Zsolt Horvath, kept changing their stories.

“Then [amid a police probe], he shows up at the hotel and says, ‘My daughter is not gone,’ ” said Ronia. When he met the little girl, she told him she had just seen her mother, Roxanna Fiedlerne, that morning.

That’s when the entire scam unraveled. Horvath and Fiedlerne confessed and were arrested.

I particularly like this quote from Ronai, in the New York Daily News. It humanizes the frequently heartless connotations people have with personal-injury claims:

“She’s shaking, she’s doing an Oscar performance. She had me fooled until she asked for money. She wanted to know, ‘How much money do you think this is worth?’” he said.

“That was red flag. In 20 years of doing this, never once have I experienced a situation where someone loses a relative and they talk about money. Every family just wants to know: what happened? How did it happen?”

Some people might scoff, and say, “Big deal. He just did what he was supposed to do.”

But — and I’m not sure if this makes me cynical or naïve — I get happy whenever somebody makes an unambiguously ethical choice. Ronai used his professional abilities to sniff out bullsh*t and prevent an injustice from being committed. Maybe he only turned the scammers over to police because he no longer saw a paycheck for himself, or maybe he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of quietly extricating himself from the situation.

We are surrounded by stories of hypocritical politicians, extraordinarily unpleasant television personalities, and straight up tools. So you will never see me complain about somebody doing the right thing. It’s that simple.

Good job, Mr. Ronai. I salute you.

N.Y. lawyer unmasked scammers who claimed mom, daughter were missing on Costa Concordia [New York Daily News]

NYer foils cruel shipwreck scam [New York Post]

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