Photo by Mark Robert Halper.

Photo by Mark Robert Halper.

If you are sick, badly injured, or know someone who is or might become sick or disabled, you need to know Frank Darras.

Darras has established a reputation over the past 20 years as the nation's top attorney for those facing disability or long-term care issues. He is a tireless and fearless advocate willing to take on the insurance industry for any claim, no matter how small, no matter where. In 24 years, he has recovered nearly $500M for policyholders wrongfully denied coverage.

A standout athlete in his youth, he was personally affected by injury, losing the sensation in his fingertips after an industrial accident, which cost him a Big 10 football scholarship. He made his way the hard way after that, working a series of jobs, before adding law studies at Western State University, College of Law to his schedule.

After graduation, he joined one of the nation's top bad faith firms, which became Shernoff, Bidart & Darras. There, Darras built the ultimate pay-it-forward law practice. Each client he helped, whether a blue-collar worker, health care professional or CEO, spread the word about his practice to other individuals facing coverage issues. And clients with medical and other useful skills provided help to Darras' clients when possible.

Darras recently started his own firm, DarrasLaw, whose mission is to help everyone get the disability and other insurance benefits they paid for and deserve. We recently sat down with him at his office in Ontario, Calif., to talk about his new firm and his passion for helping people navigate the crucible of insurance coverage.

Lawdragon: Why start your own firm at this point in your career?

Frank Darras: I founded DarrasLaw to broaden my reach, to get my name out to the four corners of America and everybody in the middle so policyholders would know my name means real protection when it comes to fighting big insurance. It was difficult to get in early enough to fix problems that became fatal mistakes made by claimants and unfamiliar counsel to the practice area.

All across the country, I found it hard to fix a cake that was already baked. With DarrasLaw I want policyholders to come to me first and avoid those fatal mistakes.

LD: Isn't this a difficult time to start a firm?

FD: It's absolutely a difficult time and a tough economy. But, I have always had a vision for the disabled and the elderly that all roads would lead to me and my name would mean real protection. We're doing it a different way here, and I realized that if I'm writing the book on disability and long-term care and I'm making the law in that area, it will be simpler and easier for everyone to find us if we're branded nationally.

LD: What are some of the obstacles policyholders face in getting their claims covered? And how is your new firm responding to those needs?

FD: For the sick, disadvantaged and disabled, it's hard to take on a billion-dollar insurance company when carriers know sick people don't fight hard and some won't 'last long. Insurers regularly make courts hard to find and too expensive to get into.

So I said, let's do as much as we can for free. And when we can't do more, let's find another way to help - with free policy analysis, free claims help, free insurance problem assistance without sticking a retainer in front of their faces or charging sky-high hourly rates. It's my way of giving back so people know there are some lawyers in America who are doing it differently.

If I can help 1,000 people a month, bulletproof their claim forms, help them understand what their carrier is required to do and what their legal rights are, people can do a better job of empowering themselves. Clients often come back to me and ask, "Frank, what can we do for you?" I say two things. "One, say a prayer for me and the people I'm lucky to work with, and two, tell a friend."

LD: I noticed bulletin boards on the wall, and some framed photos of notes from people thanking you and your staff for all your work and the profound difference you've made in people's lives.

FD: We call that our Wall of Gratitude, and believe it or not, we change those notes every few months. We are so blessed to be able to help thousands of people who really have nowhere else to turn. That's how I built the largest practice in the country, one good honest claimant at a time.

It doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, whether your claim is big or small or where you are in America. At some point in their lives, people will get sick, injured or old. My practice has grown up with 40-year olds who are now 60 and need long-term care. It doesn't matter if you are a CEO or a secretary, in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the Professional Golf Association, a WWF wrestler or a janitor, doctor, lawyer or chiropractor. Everyone in America is covered by my practice.

LD: How do you provide services to injured people around the nation?

FD: I have an 18-hour shop that starts at 6 am to cover the East Coast. People start at noon to cover the Midwest, then people start at 3 pm and work until Midnight to cover the West Coast and Hawaii. We provide coverage from 6 am to midnight with live, compassionate, empathetic intake staff who want to give these folks help and the emotional penicillin to not give up. We want people to send us information so we can provide free help, and in the event the carrier still does the wrong thing, we want to partner together to ensure they get the coverage they deserve.

LD: You also have medical professionals on your staff, don't you?

FD: I built the largest practice in the country just like the insurance carriers have done. We have a full-time nurse and occupational and vocational counselors available. We use a network of doctors and medical professionals, all people we've helped for free who give me free legal and medical services so my people don't have to pay.

I've helped professionals from UCLA, Harvard and Johns Hopkins for free, and to give back, they turn around and help others. That'what we call DarrasNation. There is an army of folks we've helped who want to give back. That's how we are different.

If a carrier decides they're going to abuse a policyholder, and it's one of my policyholders, I level the playing field. I'm set up just like they are and now I have 24 years experience and I've litigated all across the country, earning the respect of the industry. My people are going to get top dollar, whether they have to sue or not, they will get their dignity back as a result. We're going to remove the insult that big insurance has added to their injury or illness.

LD: Does the large volume of cases you see provide you a greater ability to impact insurers who abuse their policyholders?

FD: Absolutely. I see things in real time. If I see 2,500 to 3,000 cases a month, I see right away what a carrier is doing. I know when they're doing something institutionally wrong. I know when they're using an institutional claim tactic.
I know most lawyers won't see that volume of cases in ten years. I know the pattern and practice of the insurers, so I can step in early to correct and avert. The good carriers know that sometimes even a good company can go bad and need a correction. Sometimes it's just one bad apple that has started a practice and the higher-ups aren't aware of it. But $10 here and $10 there times a million policyholders, pretty soon starts to add up. I have the ability to impact a carrier's legal budget if they're not doing the right thing.

LD: How did you get started as a disability insurance lawyer?

FD: When I graduated from law school, one of the first things I did was buy life and disability insurance. For me as a lawyer, I thought "this is simple, it's just a contract."But as I tried to wade through it, it was like reading Greek. I realized that if it was that hard for me as a lawyer, how was the layperson going to be able to sit down and understand a full-of-holes insurance policy that wouldn't save you on a sunny day, let alone serve as a life preserver.

LD: Do you remember your first case?

FD: Of course. One day a man walked in, a janitor with a 5th grade education and his name on his shirt. He had slipped off a ladder and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury and was having trouble with his disability policy. As I looked across the table at him, it all came together for me. I came from pretty humble beginnings and had worked at pretty much every job you could work at and here was this man who represented exactly where I came from.

He needed more from me than just stellar representation. He needed a lawyer with heart and passion, who would really be David versus Goliath and take on a billion-dollar insurance company. The insurer had delayed and delayed and brought in fancy lawyers to take his claim away. They beat him up, wore him down and nearly starved him.

At the end of the case, I had fallen in love with an area of law that was where I came from. I was able to get him the benefits he richly paid for, and to get the carrier to pay the attorney fees and to add emotional distress damages.

We all buy a promise on a piece of paper that we hope we never use. And that comes with a responsibility to pay in a timely, friendly manner. The insurer tried to take advantage of him because he was weak, he didn't have the wherewithal, and they nearly won. At the end of they day, we gave him every nickel of his disability, restored his dignity, and took away the shame they tried to use to coat the claim.

LD: How did DarrasNation grow from there?

FD: I met a great doctor in that case who had provided great care to the janitor. I offered the doctor the opportunity to review his policy, and he told a friend, who told a friend. It didn't take long before I had all the orthopedists, neurosurgeons, dentists and chiropractors coming to me for insurance help. I was able to help all of them understand what they had bought and how to use it.

LD: I guess when people think of disability, they think of poor people, or people who are very sick, but really, it's much broader than that.

FD: The poor came first. They are still coming and are still first. But also the rich came, the CEO's, the professional athletes from all different areas, movie stars and authors. The right to coverage is not a matter of rich or poor.

LD: I know you have a lot of gratitude for all those who helped you build your practice.

FD: I've been very lucky. I love my former partners from Shernoff Bidart, who gave me the opportunity at their California bad-faith firm. They let me start out growing Chihuahuas into Great Danes, making me their partner after two years. I am humbled and grateful.

I also owe a huge debt of gratitude and thanks to my college of law, Western State. I wasn't the brightest bulb in the application pool, I didn't have the best LSAT's, didn't have super grades in college. But I knew if the admissions director would give me an interview, I could show him my passion and that one day I would make a difference in the law. They'd be very proud to call me a Western State graduate.They did admit me, and I worked my way through law school, keeping up a full-time job and my studies.

Twelve years after I became a lawyer, that wonderful gentleman who gave me a chance, ended up with a sickness and a problem with his disability carrier. I got to do the right thing and honor what he did for me. It was a wonderful turn.

I've been blessed to be a part of Western State. I'm on their board of trustees, and was honored to give them a state-of-the-art moot court, so other kids like me could have the greatest and latest technology, and a forum any lawyer would be proud to train in.

LD: How has the economy affected your clients?

FD: My practice is a barometer of the national economy. In years past, even in tough times, people would come to me with six months worth of savings. They hadn't yet received the foreclosure notice. They had family and friends who could take them in. When the economy collapsed last year, there was no more room. The credit cards were gone. The house had been foreclosed on and friends and relatives were in worse or equal shape.

LD: Can you tell me about some people you've helped recently who've been particularly hard hit by the deadly combination of poor health and the economy?

FD: In the past year, I've had the privilege of representing four individuals in mediations who were fighting for coverage while being homeless. In addition to having their lifeline to medical care cut off, my folks are now cut off from the world and living in shelters or in their cars.

To have the opportunity to take a mediator down into a $35 a day parking complex to show them where my clients were living because of wrongful denials of coverage, and how that made my clients live and to show the representatives from the carrier where they lived was as impactful a moment as I've ever had as a lawyer.

The wonder of that is that those four clients today are living in brand new housing, or housing that they own. DarrasLaw is not the new economic stimulus package, but to take someone who has fallen as far as they had, to having them become homeowners and start new lives - is what we're doing here. We're changing policyholders' lives one billion-dollar insurance company at a time.

LD: I know the victims of Hurricane Katrina had a special impact on you and your vision to reach all the policyholders in America. Would you tell me about that?

FD: When natural disaster comes to your town, your place of business may be destroyed. Where you live is gone and people have serious mental, nervous and often physical problems because of the disaster. Unfortunately, lots of those people are living hand to mouth. And many of their disability policies only provide $50 or $100 per month in disability benefits. If you're going to litigate a righteous disability case, you may be looking at benefits that might total just $5,000 or $6,000 and you have to spend $100,000 to put on the case to collect the $6,000 claim. What lawyer in America is going to take on big insurance, put up $100,000 to get $6,000?

Those were the $50 a month claims from Katrina where I had to show the industry I will put up $100,000 to get $6,000 or I'll put up $50,000 to get $500. When I did that the industry stopped snuffing out the $50 or $100 a month claims. We restored honor in the corporate handshake down there. We got big insurance to honor the little guy.
Don't add insult to their sickness or injury. No one can finance a disaster. But for those folks to get snuffed out in big versus little, it was the ultimate weak versus strong scenario and the insurers banked on no one financing the poor.

We showed the industry if it's $50 or $2 million a month, we will be there to help the disabled. These people wrote to say they were taking their medication three times per week instead of twice a day, feeding their dog every other day, only turning on their lights to split their medication. For those people, to have gas in their car, food and clothes for their kids and to have them praying for you. ...Wow.

That's why we always say big claim or small, $50 or $2 million, Idaho or Arkansas, it doesn't matter. No venue is too far, no claim is too small. We owe this to the disabled and to our seniors.