Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Weeks after the Oct. 1 shooting, some survivors received letters from a lawyer saying he could help them file a claim for one of the victim compensation funds. The letter suggested the lawyer had insider information from the FBI that would be valuable to the process and was offering to work pro bono on the issue.
The letter appeared legitimate at first glance, but a discerning person took it to Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada to have it reviewed. What Legal Aid saw was different.
The letters were sent by a personal injury lawyer based in Texas. The offer to assist pro bono on victim compensation funds was merely the lawyer’s entry point to recruit them for the ultimate goal: signing victims on to a personal injury lawsuit the firm was building. The suggestion of insider information wasn’t just misleading, it was ethically unprofessional.
Legal Aid staff members make clear the center takes no position on whether victims should pursue personal injury lawsuits. What they do care about is making sure people fully understand what they are signing up for. Since Day One, the nonprofit organization has offered Route 91 victims free assistance with a variety of legal issues.
It has helped relatives of the deceased with issues relating to probate and estate, immigration and visas, medical billing problems and worker’s compensation. Inquiries are being handled both internally by Legal Aid staff and externally by a group of local lawyers donating their time and expertise. For victims residing in other states, Legal Aid assists in finding reputable organizations elsewhere.
It also offers objective explanations for legal jargon. For example, it will not assist victims with personal-injury lawsuits, but staff members will help explain what a class-action lawsuit is, as well as its pros and cons versus other legal options.
One shooting victim was confused because he received a medical bill he believed was being waived by the hospital. Legal Aid staff helped him sort through the issue, determining that the hospital didn’t have control of that particular cost.
Tennille Pereira, a consumer rights attorney with Legal Aid, says that is the type of issue for which many victims don’t realize they can get assistance.
“They would think of it as a billing issue,” Pereira said. “But we see everything as a legal issue.”
Some survivors also have a renewed desire to pursue end-of-life planning. Christine Miller, Legal Aid director of community initiatives and outreach, recalls a father who escaped the festival grounds physically unharmed but then realized there was no guardianship plan in place for his daughter in the event of his death. Legal Aid helped him with his planning.
With each new month, new challenges are surfacing. The center is helping individuals dealing with eviction after they couldn’t return to jobs because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Chief among Legal Aid’s efforts going forward will be staving off potential scams and fraud from unscrupulous people looking to cash in on those who are vulnerable. Where most see tragedy, some will always see opportunity, Pereira says.
“We are seeing it already,” she said. “People trying to establish trust and offer help, then guiding them. People are emotional, suffering from PTSD and struggling to make everyday decisions. They think, ‘Oh, I can trust you. Show me where I can put my money.’ ”
Especially at risk for fraud or bad decisions are those most affected by the shooting. Beneficiaries of the 58 deceased and those injured enough to require emergency medical treatment at a hospital are eligible to receive money from the $22 million Las Vegas Victims Fund. Distribution of that money is expected to begin in March.
Specific award amounts won’t be publicly tied to names, but the high-profile nature of the victims and the transparent process used by the distribution committee will make it easy for many to be identified and targeted.
In preparation for this, Legal Aid created the Vegas Strong Investment & Financial Planning Toolkit. This resource guide offers tips on how to avoid financial fraud and how to choose a qualified investment professional. Much of the toolkit comes from FINRA Investor Education Foundation, which promotes financial knowledge and tools to the underserved. Other advice stems from lessons learned from mass-casualty events like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Legal Aid also is exploring a partnership with financial advisers to secure free planning for those who will receive large sums of money.
More broadly, Pereira says the Oct. 1 tragedy has revealed a crucial need in the state.
“We have discovered a hole in victims’ rights,” Pereira said, acknowledging that the mass shooting created an initial flood of victims, but there are people who deal with the fallout of crimes in the valley every day. “We don’t have a full wrap-around system,” Pereira said.