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Startups Firm uses nurses, not lawyers, to get lawsuit money

Class-action lawsuits make news for their big sums – last year, pharmaceutical giant Merck settled a suit over its heart drug Vioxx for $37-million – but a more prosaic challenge gets less attention. After the settlement, it can be very difficult for claimants to get paid.

"Many, many people who are awarded class-action awards don't ever get their money," says Chris Rokosh, the Calgary businesswoman behind Optio Group, a firm that uses nurses, not lawyers, to help claimants get their settlement.

To start, there can be exacting forms to fill out. For instance, Vioxx claimants must not only acquire medical and pharmaceutical records covering a period that might be a decade in the past, they also have to extract very specific pieces of data. What kind of heart attack was it? What were the ECG readings? Fill out the form incorrectly, and a claim can be rejected.

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Claimants typically go through law firms to file. But Ms. Rokosh, who spent the first 25 years of her career as a nurse, saw an opening. She was already the founder of one medical-legal business: CanLNC, a network of about 1,000 practicing Canadians doctors and nurses who are specially trained in delivering expert medical testimony in court. At any given time, they're involved in about 150 cases.

And her business was already helping law firms fill out medical class-action forms. "We were getting a lot of our cases from lawyers because they find this process an incredibly onerous task," she explains. "There's a tremendous amount of medical expertise required to do the next step."

Ms. Rokosh realized her firm could take that next step itself. Launching under the new banner of Optio Group, it's offering claim-filing services directly to the public. The process starts with an opening screening interview, and proceeds to document collection, filing, and payment. Optio asks for a $500 retainer upfront, which is applied against an eventual 15-per-cent cut of any awards. Ms. Rokosh says it offers claimants substantially better terms than law firms can offer.

One of the reasons Optio keeps its overhead down is that it's a proudly virtual business. "Everybody works from home," says Ms. Rokosh, noting that not only does it beat paying the rents of a downtown law firm, but it has had the unexpected side-effect of building an especially loyal team. The firm employs a roster of nine base staff and administrators, and branches out into its larger network of nurses.

Class-actions suits are still relatively new to Canada: most provinces only allowed them after 1992 (Quebec got started early, in 1978), and suits took many years to work their way through the system. For this reason, it's still a young market for related services, and Ms. Rokosh sees plenty of room to grow, both in Canada and the United States.

"There's a lot of assistance for the defence, but nobody's assisting the plaintiff."

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