A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper public service, The Eagle Tribune

By Quill

Auto insurance rates in Lawrence, Mass., are among the highest in the country. Previously, The Eagle-Tribune covered the city’s suspiciously high rate of personal claims but didn’t dig deep until March 2003, when an anonymous letter appeared in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly revealed personal injury lawyers hiring people to stage accidents.

The staff spent more than a year researching and reporting “At Fault: Inside the Culture of Auto Insurance Fraud.” The series tracked a decade’s worth of the area’s accidents and injury claims.

“This series uncloaked a culture of auto insurance fraud – staged and fake crashes, phony injury claims, unscrupulous personal injury lawyers and chiropractors,” said Shawn Boburg, a general assignment/special projects reporter for The Tribune. “The series explored the characters feeding this fraud frenzy, both on the streets and in the clinics and law offices, and exposed the indifference and inability by those in authority to stop it, costing drivers in Massachusetts tens of millions of dollars every year.”

Reporters tracked down “frequent flyer” accident victims and followed the money trail to find the city’s chiropractic clinics and physical therapy offices benefiting the most from the fraud.

“At the outset, we had agreed that we would not use anonymous sources,” said Editor in Chief Bill Ketter. “So we had to work hard to find sources that would talk for publication. Once that became known, many started talking openly, and those that would not often tipped us to others who would or told us where to find the evidence.”

Since 2004, Lawrence auto accidents have dropped by 40 percent.

“Dozens of professionals and fraud ring leaders have been indicted,” said Boburg. “State legislators have passed anti-fraud legislations, and a cluster of personal injury law offices and storefront chiropractic clinics have been driven out of business, saving future drivers tens of millions of dollars.”

Judges applauded the work’s ability to ignite change in the area.

“A methodical and thorough investigation of auto insurance fraud so pervasive that it is part of the area’s culture,” said the judges. “Great public service in exposing the fraud and explains its effects upon others.”