It was late one night in February when a barrage of Facebook messages started lighting up Christopher Hansen’s phone. Each one included an image of a stranger whose life had been upended by a mass shooting. Just like Mr. Hansen’s.
There was a photo of a woman who had survived the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, smiling beside an orange memorial ribbon. Another showed a man holding a placard with the words “Vegas Strong.”
The photos were coming from John Groff, the office manager of a law firm hired by Mr. Hansen, a survivor of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016. And they were accompanied by messages from Mr. Groff, who appeared to be using one mass shooting survivor to recruit others as new clients.
“We need this one,” Mr. Groff wrote, according to screenshots provided by Mr. Hansen. “Reach out to him.”
Mr. Groff sent a link to a news story about a woman whose eye had been shot out in Las Vegas.
“I want this case,” Mr. Groff wrote.
The shooting rampages that have terrorized communities across the country have spurred lawsuits from the ever-growing ranks of victims and survivors seeking a measure of justice. And many survivors say that within days of the traumatizing events, they face relentless pressure to sign representation contracts.
“We’ve all gotten a thousand phone calls from lawyers,” said Chad Robertson, who survived the Las Vegas shooting and helped administer a handful of survivor support groups on Facebook.
But even in the high-pressure world of solicitations, Mr. Hansen and other survivors’ experiences with the firm they hired after Orlando stand out as unusual. Clients described Mr. Groff going to extraordinary lengths to snag more business for his firm. Two men also said that while they were being asked to solicit more clients, Mr. Groff sent them sexually charged messages.
In the weeks after that shooting in June 2016, Mr. Hansen said he was approached by Mr. Groff, who said he was with the Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto, a Philadelphia-based plaintiffs’ law firm. The firm also has offices in New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Arkansas, according to its website.
The firm’s work has ranged from personal injury cases to environmental contamination, civil rights complaints and bankruptcies. But it has also pursued mass shooting cases after attacks at the Pulse nightclub, the Las Vegas concert and at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex. The firm’s website touts its work on shooting cases. It has filed at least one lawsuit so far stemming from a mass shooting, joining with other firms to sue a security company that once employed the Pulse gunman.
Hundreds of families have turned to the legal system after mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and more. Often, they find themselves facing a multiyear legal crusade, with slim chances of success.
The primary people responsible — the gunmen — are often dead or do not have nearly enough wealth to compensate even a fraction of their victims. Federal laws insulate gun makers from legal liability.
Despite these hurdles, some victims say they go to court to expose safety flaws, law enforcement lapses or negligence at a theater or concert venue where gunshots erupted. Others sue to pry open the private internal records of gun makers. A lawsuit can become one more way of speaking for the dead.
Two survivors of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have sent letters of intent to sue to the school district as well as local and federal law enforcement agencies over the response to the shooting and the multiple unheeded warnings about the gunman.
States write their own rules governing how lawyers can solicit business, sometimes requiring them to wait 30 days after a wrongful death or personal injury before approaching potential clients. California law does not allow firms to solicit people who may still be too physically or mentally scarred to make reasonable decisions about hiring a lawyer.
Jamie Lynn Gallegos, who survived the Vegas shooting, said she was still in shock when her phone started ringing about two weeks after the attack in October. From 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., calls poured in for her and her husband, their sons and others who had gone together to the Route 91 festival, she said.
“They were relentless,” said Ms. Gallegos, who with her husband transported Las Vegas gunshot victims in the bed of their pickup truck.
Getting involved with the Benedetto firm forged an accidental brotherhood for Mr. Hansen and a few other Pulse survivors who signed up as clients. They appeared together on a rainbow-colored float at Boston’s gay pride parade last June.
This year, they went on cross-country trips organized by the firm to meet other mass-shooting survivors in Las Vegas and California. They ate at glittering Las Vegas restaurants and saw the Grand Canyon.
But three of the men said they began to feel more like sales executives, sent to draw more business for the firm by making promotional videos and appearing at meetings with other mass-shooting survivors.
“They were using our story,” Mr. Hansen said in an interview.
The men said they did not raise their concerns with anyone at the law firm at the time, including Mr. Benedetto, the owner, or with any state agencies that regulate professional conduct.
Mr. Benedetto said his firm treated all of its clients with professionalism and respect. In an interview, he said that his clients have his cellphone number and “can call me to voice any complaints.” That never happened, he said.
“It would be unfortunate if any unsubstantiated and false allegations have been wrongfully spread through the community,” Mr. Benedetto said in an email.
He added: “We represent victims who have been seriously injured and emotionally distressed and we respect them and will always support them to the fullest moral, ethical and legal standards.”
Brian Nunez, a client who left Pulse moments before the shooting and felt traumatized by survivors’ guilt, joined up with the firm and flew to Las Vegas in January for what he believed was a support meeting with victims of the massacre there.
“When we got there, the setting changed completely,” Mr. Nunez said. “It was, ‘You guys, you do your job and get other people to sign up.’ That’s it.”
Mr. Nunez said he was asked to record a promotional video for the Benedetto firm, “saying who we are, what our tragedy was and what they’ve done for us.”
“I didn’t even feel comfortable recording it,” Mr. Nunez said, though he went through with it.
Javier Nava, a restaurant manager who was shot in the abdomen during the Pulse attack, signed up with the firm and joined the Las Vegas and California trips, also believing the meetings were aimed at helping survivors share their stories and connect with one another. But he said the gatherings felt like recruiting seminars.
“They wanted me to share my history, but get more clients,” Mr. Nava said. “This is the deal. They are using me.”
Mr. Groff, the law firm’s office manager, is also listed as an administrator of a private Facebook group called Survivors of Mass Shootings whose mission is to “help each other through our healing process, rather it be a few days or a lifetime.”
Many of the state rules that regulate legal advertisements require that direct mail and advertising circulars include prominent disclaimers to make clear they are soliciting business. But often, those rules make no mention of Facebook groups, online messaging, friend requests and other everyday modes of communication.
It was during the trips with other survivors that two of the men said they also began to have uncomfortable interactions with Mr. Groff, who they said arranged their travel, took them out to meals, provided their tickets and drove them from meeting to meeting.
Mr. Groff is not a lawyer, but he served as a primary contact with shooting survivors, clients said. He could be personable and funny, and spent hours with the men, traveling and talking and winning their confidence, they said.
But Mr. Nunez and Mr. Nava provided screenshots showing Mr. Groff had sent them sexually charged messages.
In February, Mr. Groff took the Pulse survivors on a trip to California, and the text messages between him and Mr. Nava grew increasingly sexual until he offered to perform oral sex on Mr. Nava, according to a screenshot. He persisted as Mr. Nava declined several times.
Mr. Nunez and Mr. Nava said they were shaken by the exchanges, calling them a betrayal of a professional relationship. They said they have not spoken recently with Mr. Groff and have since hired a new lawyer.
Mr. Benedetto did not respond to questions about the allegations of sexual harassment, or to an email detailing questions about Mr. Groff’s background, behavior and role with clients. Mr. Groff did not respond to multiple phone messages or social media messages seeking comment.
There have been previous complaints about Mr. Groff’s behavior. In December 2015, a former client, Javier Carrasquillo, filed a lawsuit in Camden County, N.J., saying that Mr. Groff had traded sex with Mr. Carrasquillo and his girlfriend in exchange for legal services after Mr. Carrasquillo was arrested.
The lawsuit was settled. Matthew Wolf, the lawyer for Mr. Carrasquillo, said he could not comment publicly about the case.
The lawsuit brought some public notice to Mr. Groff’s criminal history. Since the 1990s, he has been convicted of charges relating to passing bad checks and “theft by deception,” according to New Jersey court records.
The Pulse survivors who worked with Mr. Groff’s employer, the Benedetto law firm, said they knew none of this when they signed up, and said they were still largely in the dark about the lawsuits being filed in their names.
Orlando Torres, a Pulse survivor who also signed up with the Benedetto firm, said he had been surprised to see his name listed among the plaintiffs on a federal civil suit filed in March 2017 against a security company that had employed the gunman.
“I was unaware of it till I saw it on the news,” said Mr. Torres, adding that he cut ties with the firm last September.
The law firm, meanwhile, appears to have moved forward. In a March 15 post on its Facebook page, it announced that it was taking clients from the Florida high school shooting. “Please register with us,” the post said. “We’re here to help.”
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