``Lawyers are very clever at posing as defenders of the public,'' says Donald Seagrave, executive director of the Insurance Research Council. Mr. Seagrave's acid comment was prompted by research showing a major increase in auto bodily injury claims in specific states and cities, despite an apparent drop in highway accident rates. These include the states California, Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and the cities Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.

``There has been a big increase in lawyer activity,'' he says.

For example, Californians produced nearly 56 paid injury liability claims for every 100 auto accidents serious enough to generate a vehicle damage claim in 1989. That's an increase of 79 percent from the 1980 level of 31 paid injuries per 100 property damage accidents. That rate is twice as high as in such other large states as Illinois, Texas, Ohio, and Virginia.

Mr. Seagrave charges that the insurance system generates claims for nonexistent or minor injuries in some cases. ``There is a tremendous incentive to build up the claims,'' he says.

When lawyers become involved, the ``injured'' party is more likely to see ``favorite'' chiropractors or physicians repeatedly - sometimes 20, 30 times or so - for treatment. Then the lawyer seeks and often gets compensation from the insurance companies for ``pain and suffering'' on top of the costs of the treatment.

After paying treatment and laywer costs, however, the injured party in some common types of injury may net only a little more or even less money than what he or she would get in a settlement without a lawyer, says Seagrave. All insured drivers pay for these ``exaggerated'' claims with higher premiums, he adds.

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