Quebec Bar ignored warning Lac-Mégantic victims were being 'harassed' by lawyers

The body that oversees Quebec's legal profession admits it could have done a better job protecting victims of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster from a notorious ambulance chaser who descended on the Quebec town to sign up bereaved clients with American lawyers after the deadly derailment.

"There were no red flags," says Claudia Prémont, who headed Quebec's bar association until recently. "No one — not the mayor, not the evacuees nor the relatives of those who were killed — picked up the phone to call us and say, 'We need your help.'"

However, the bar association didn't intervene after it was made aware of allegations of solicitation and "disturbing" tactics used by lawyers in the days after a runaway train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, incinerating the town centre and killing 47.

Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has obtained a copy of the 2014 letter, sent to the bar association by a witness to the events, which describes locals "in tears" and "at wit's end" after being "harassed" by lawyers.

Those lawyers promised the families of the dead payouts of millions of dollars if they signed on to file lawsuits in U.S. courts.

The bar association could not explain why it did not follow up on the 2014 letter.

Millions for case runner

Enquête reported in March that one questionable Texas law firm may have pocketed between $10 million and $15 million in fees without having done any significant legal work in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Willie Garcia, the man behind the Garcia Law Group, is widely seen as one of the biggest ambulance chasers  — also known as a case runner — in the U.S.

- WATCH | The Case Runner on The Fifth Estate

He's not a lawyer, but according to court documents released during an acrimonious divorce, he has amassed a small fortune by flying in after accidents and calamities to recruit victims willing to sue major U.S. corporations.

While many of the families of those killed in Lac-Mégantic were still in shock in the weeks following the disaster, Garcia worked to sign up clients, then delivered those clients to American law firms — for a fee.

More money may go to Garcia

The fees already pocketed by the Garcia Law Group are its share of approximately $114 million paid so far to families of the victims.

The money comes from an indemnization fund made up of contributions from the federal government and more than 30 companies that were sued, including Montreal Maine & Atlantic, the company — now in bankruptcy protection — that owned the runaway train.

A final $20 million is set to be distributed this fall to victims that include business people wiped out by the firestorm and others that suffered in the aftermath of the disaster. 

Of that $20 million, $5 million will go to the families of the dead, and they likely can't prevent Garcia from once again getting a share of that payout.

"Even if it bothers us, there is nothing we can do about it," said Gilles Robillard, a partner at Richter, the Montreal accounting firm responsible for distributing the funds. "These are contracts between the Lac-Mégantic families and their American lawyers."

The families would have to go to court to try to have the agreed-upon fees modified or invalidated.

However, with many of the victims still reeling from the well-documented psychological distress of having lost loved ones, livelihoods and tranquility, few have the stamina to do that.

What did Hans Mercier know?

Hans Mercier, the lawyer from Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, Que., who worked as co-counsel with the American law firms, including Garcia's, admits having encouraged victims to sign contracts with them.

In an interview in January, Mercier said he was unsure whether Garcia personally came to Lac-Mégantic, and he strongly denied knowing how Garcia conducted his business. 

"These are allegations I am hearing for the first time," he told Enquête at the time. 

Since then, Radio-Canada has learned that Mercier allegedly told several people he knew what Garcia's role was in Lac-Mégantic.

Mercier did not respond to further questions. He still insists his work helped the victims of Lac-Mégantic receive fair compensation.

No formal complaints to the Quebec Bar

After Enquête published its original report this past spring, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée wrote to the bar association, calling the revelations "very worrisome."

"I am certain that the Barreau du Quebec is already hard at work studying this situation, given its general powers of oversight and duty to protect the public," she wrote, asking that the bar association keep her informed of any new developments.

A few weeks later, the bar association organized a meeting for victims' families at which its representatives informed them about their legal options, including filing formal complaints with the bar.

Prémont said she was disappointed no one followed up with a formal complaint.

"Unfortunately, we can't file a complaint with the bar on behalf of citizens," she said.

Several victims' relatives — many still emotionally fragile, four years after the disaster — told Enquête they haven't filed complaints against their lawyers because they fear being judged by their neighbours.

"We suspected that someone was profiting from us, but we were told so often that we were lucky to have gotten any money, we didn't dare protest," said one relative of a victim.

"It's over, we don't talk about it anymore," said another, whose children were bullied at school over the fact that the family had received compensation. "We've turned the page."