Legal Backup

No, prepaid legal insurance is not slipping a trooper some cash before he writes you a ticket. Basically, it’s insurance for any legal costs you might incur – such as fighting violation tickets, getting a lawyer to read over a lease agreement or protecting your assets if you’re in an accident that injures someone. Given last year’s increase of penalties on commercial drivers for moving violations, good legal protection is more essential than ever.

“If you’re driving your truck without legal insurance, it’s like owning a house without fire insurance,” says Eddie Morgan, national sales director for Pre-paid Legal Services, based in Oklahoma. “You can probably get away with it, but one day you could lose everything.”

Owner-operator Aaron Gethers of Charlotte, N.C., has been a Pre-Paid Legal Services subscriber for about five years. “You can’t beat it. It’s cheaper than lawyers’ fees,” says Gethers, who is leased to Madaris Transportation. “I just used the traffic ticket service. I just called them, and they took care of it. They just send you a letter that says the charges have been dropped.”

Jim Klepper, one of the founding lawyers with Drivers Legal Plan of Oklahoma City, says convenience is a big draw for having a legal plan. “Professional drivers on the road have their hands full,” Klepper says. “The time it would take for them to take off and get back to court might cost them days and probably several hundred dollars, but if they don’t protect their CDLs, they’re not going to have a job.”

With most services, you pay a monthly fee for legal insurance and in return you get free or discounted services. Some plans cover personal matters, such as divorces, wills and tax dealings, and some cover only business-related issues. Some cover both. Some companies limit their coverage to certain states, while others allow you to start a policy in a state that you run but don’t live in, and others limit coverage to the state where your home is. Costs range from about $100 to more than $500 a year.

With last year’s CDL rule changes, it’s even more important that you protect your driving record. Allowing small violations to accumulate by not defending them – simply because it’s inconvenient or it costs too much – is unwise.

“Under the old system, serious violations in your personal vehicle didn’t affect your CDL, but as of Sept. 30, if you incur a serious violation in your personal vehicle, that will impact your commercial record,” Morgan says.

“What you have to do is fight each and every ticket because you don’t know which one or two out of three you’re going to lose,” Klepper says. “If you lose two, you’re out of work. If you fight all three and win all three, you’re OK.”

Morgan says his practice has seen more driver suspensions than ever. “And drivers are being hit with fines,” he says. “A driver took a wrong exit, and before he realized he had made an error, he got a ticket for being overweight without a permit. His ticket was $2.10 per pound for 12,000 pounds, but I got the ticket reduced from $25,000 to $50.”

Another regulatory change from last year is that there are now eight instead of five serious violations: speeding more than 15 mph over the limit, following too closely, unnecessary lane changes, reckless driving, driver behavior resulting in a fatality, driving a commercial vehicle without having a CDL, driving a commercial vehicle without having the CDL in possession and driving a commercial vehicle without the proper endorsements. The new ruling also changes the policy that allowed violations to disappear if a driver attended driving school – a practice known as masking.

Some insurance plans provide a lawyer, while others simply refer you to a lawyer within a network at a discounted rate.

“If a driver is charged with something, we hire a local attorney, and we pay 100 percent of the legal fees – innocent, guilty, it doesn’t matter,” Morgan says. “We represent drivers in a case of a tragic accident when he’s charged with a criminal charge. It can cost someone between $20,000 and $30,000 up to $70,000, but there is no limit on what we will pay. The only stipulation is that there can be no alcohol- or drug-related charges.”

American Truckers Legal Services handles “anything, anywhere in the United States,” says owner Millard Dean. “If they need an attorney, we’ll set them up with one at a discounted rate – from about 50 percent to 10 percent of what one would normally charge – but we solve about 60 percent of our cases through our office, with no attorney. It depends on the circumstances and the state. We call the court to find out what can be done. We’ve done this so long that we know already whether an attorney has to help.”

Klepper, who is an attorney and a CDL-holder, and his associates specialize in CDL law and handle cases directly instead of giving referrals. Klepper’s services cost $2.98 a week; when you need him to defend you, it’s a $100 fee for moving and non-moving violations. “That $100 covers from start to finish, whether it takes me six hours, six days or six weeks,” Klepper says. He charges $250 for simple accidents (no loss of life or limb), and one-third off the regular price for drug- or alcohol-related charges.

Some insurers offer more than one level of representation. Pre-paid Legal, for example, offers a Basic CDL plan for a $25 enrollment and $32.95 a month, which covers tragic-accident representation, moving and non-moving violations, license reinstatement and other legal services. There is a 25 percent discount for defending a criminal charge and for certain services, such as document review. Some services limit hours, such as providing 2.5 hours with a lawyer and a discount for service beyond that.

The legal risks of professional driving are higher than ever. Make sure to have a plan for legal representation that fits your operation, whether it’s your own lawyer or a legal insurance plan.

Legal insurance coverage varies in many ways, so carefully investigate any plan you consider to see if it will cover your needs.


WAITING FOR TROUBLE

You can wait until you get a ticket before calling a legal service, but it’s generally not the best approach. Eddie Morgan of Pre-paid Legal Services says if someone with a moving violation buys a membership, Pre-paid will represent him for a flat fee of $200. American Truckers Legal Services requires a prospective member with an existing ticket to buy an eight-month membership. “It tends to be cheaper if they call us before, not after,” says Millard Dean of ATLS.

Waiting until you get ticketed to look for a lawyer on your own could give you questionable results, considering you might be asking strangers for recommendations about lawyers in unfamiliar cities. In such cases, it’s hard to gauge a lawyer’s reputation.

“Make sure that the attorney you hire is a winner,” Dean says. “You have to be very, very careful.”


RESOURCES

Pre-Paid Legal Services
www.prepaidlegal.com
(800) 654-7757

American Truckers Legal Services
www.americantruckerslegal.com
(800) 525-HAUL

Drivers Legal Plan
www.driverslegalplan.com
(800) 580-8789

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