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August 7, 2020 6:00 PM, EDT

Ringleader Pleads Guilty in Connection With Staged La. Accidents

GavelThe accidents were staged in the New Orleans area. (Marilyn Nieves/Getty Images)

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The ringleader of a New Orleans-area group that staged accidents with unsuspecting tractor-trailer drivers has pleaded guilty for his role in the conspiracy.

On Aug. 6, Damian Labeaud, 48, of New Orleans, pleaded guilty to one federal count of a scheme to defraud interstate commercial trucking carriers and insurance companies by staging two collisions in June 2017.

In the plea agreement, federal prosecutors promised to drop seven earlier wire fraud charges against Labeaud, who now faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing hearing is set for Nov. 19.

Earlier this year, six other participants who acted as either “spotters” or passengers in the staged crashes pleaded guilty. The two accidents identified in court charging documents took place June 6, 2017, and June 12, 2017.

Two attorneys — dubbed “attorney A” and “attorney B” — have been mentioned as alleged participants in the scheme, according to court documents, but have remained unnamed. Prosecutors have said a grand jury investigating a number of staged accidents has the names of the two attorneys and doctors hand-picked to examine the group’s accident participants.

Labeaud admitted to acting as the driver, or “slammer,” in both the June 6 and the June 12 staged automobile accidents.

“As the slammer, Labeaud intentionally caused the collisions with the 18-wheeler tractor-trailers,” said an Aug. 6 statement issued by Peter Strasser, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

“After the accidents, Labeaud immediately exited the vehicles in which he had staged the accidents and fled the scene with the help of a co-defendant who was acting as a driver of a getaway car,” the statement said. “Labeaud’s co-defendants received a total of $43,000.00 as a result of the fraudulent lawsuits that were filed on their behalf for the June 6 and June 12 accidents.”

According to his guilty plea, Labeaud staged numerous accidents for various attorneys, including at least 40 staged accidents with 18-wheeler tractor-trailers for “attorney A.”

“Per their agreement, after each staged accident, Labeaud would connect the passengers in the staged accidents with ‘attorney A’ so that attorney A could represent them in conjunction with the accident. Attorney A would then pay Labeaud $1,000 for every passenger that was involved in a staged accident with an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer, court documents said.

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Prosecutors said that attorney A also would either pay Labeaud an advance, or would pay him for the accidents soon after they were staged. Attorney A knew that Labeaud was staging the accidents, and the two would often discuss the accidents either in person or over the phone, through calls or text messages.

The indictments returned by a grand jury last year were dubbed the “tip of the iceberg” by attorneys representing trucking companies, including victims Covenant Transportation Group of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Southeastern Motor Freight Inc. of Jefferson, La. They marked the first such criminal charges brought by federal authorities in New Orleans investigating what could be a string of similar instances.

Last year, trucking companies that travel through New Orleans were alerted to the scams by attorneys with trucking companies and insurance clients who were victims in the staged accidents. The attorneys identified similarities among a string of at least 30 cases — all in the New Orleans area.

Those suspicious accidents included multiple people in a claimant vehicle, sideswipe allegations with commercial vehicle trailers, minimal damage to claimant vehicle, little to no damage to the insured trailer and a commercial vehicle driver who is either unaware of or denies impact, according to the trucking attorneys.

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