Mark Langford: the ambulance chaser who came a cropper

He was the 'standard-bearer for Britain's compensation culture', the failed solicitor turned 'insurance pirate', prepared to take on everyone from safari parks to prisons. We profile Mark Langford of The Accident Group.

"For a man who built his fortune on accidents, real or imagined, the one that's been waiting to happen to Mark Langford was a long time coming," says The Independent on Sunday. When Langford's compensation firm, The Accident Group motto: "where there's blame there's a claim" went bust in 2003, he famously sacked his employees by text and decamped to Marbella with his millions, leaving staff and clients without a penny. Langford thought he was "untouchable", but last week, the authorities finally caught up with him. As Langford and his wife and co-director, Debbie, prepared to host a lavish birthday party for their daughter on board their £1.5m yacht, bailiffs served up two writs totalling £4.1m.

Brought up in Greater Manchester, Langford, 42, had trained as a solicitor but failed to qualify. Instead, he started Motorlaw, a claims company, and then in 1999, The Accident Group (TAG). In its 2002 heyday, TAG was "the standard bearer for Britain's burgeoning compensation culture", says The Daily Telegraph. Who could resist its no win, no fee promises? "Very few it seemed, as businesses, councils and even prisons and condom manufacturers found to their dismay." No grumble was too trivial, no claim too bizarre. A group of safari park visitors sued because they drove into a llama and suffered "whiplash", for example. The driver behind all this was the scrapping of legal aid for routine accident claims in 1998, says The Times.

Fundamental to the "no win, no fee" promise was the sale of insurance taken out by punters to cover the costs of losing. The Accident Group would advance loans of £1,000 to £2,000 to them to pay for the policy and the legal costs of the claim, taking an average £250 cut in "administration fees". If the case was lost, the insurance would kick in to pay the legal and insurance costs, leaving the punter evens, but TAG £250 better off. Those fees "soon built up". By 2002, Langford's wealth was put at £40m and he was hobnobbing with world leaders at charity events. "Shy, quiet and awkward" on the one hand, "he was also staggeringly arrogant", a colleague told The Sunday Telegraph, "seduced by his own success". He was also tough. "Give in now or we'll fucking squeeze

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the life out of you," he allegedly told one insurer who questioned his methods.

By 2003, the model had become overstretched. More and more claims were needed to pay for the empire of call centres and they became "ever more spurious". With more being lost, insurers needed higher premiums, and in May TAG collapsed, leaving debts of £100m as its parent company, Amulet, was put into administration. It owed its employees £5m. The Langfords, however, were covered: in the previous two years, they'd paid themselves £11.1m and they had access to a £8.8m offshore "Employee Benefits Trust". Meanwhile, Amulet's complex share ownership seemed dense enough to deter the investigators.

And so the couple began a charmed new life in Spain, says The Independent on Sunday. "But not everything in the pool was cool, clear and shimmering." As the Langfords wiled away the weeks starting up new businesses (including a Botox import operation), "the stones of British bureaucracy were grinding". Mark Langford has been ordered to attend a bankruptcy hearing in the High Court in March. Just desserts, at last, for Britain's most notorious "insurance pirate".

Single-minded greed and a host of spurious claims

When the chips are down, Mark Langford knows how to fight rough, notes The Sunday Times. In 2000, he got off with just a £1,000 fine when he struck and killed a 73 year-old pensioner while at the wheel of his Ferrari (driving, said the judge, like a "frustrated teenager"), on the grounds that the man had crossed a wet road at twilight. Langford ran his business with similar single-mindedness. The pressure he put on sales staff to bring in claims was relentless. "He told us: If it walks, talks, farts or breathes, write it up as a claim'," says one former employee. An investigation following the group's collapse revealed that one in two of the claims it signed up were without substance.

The centre of the Accident Group's activities was Liverpool, which soon became "the pavement-tripping capital of Britain", says The Sunday Telegraph: by 2003, the City council had set aside £6m to deal with claims. Langford's representatives established niche areas of expertise. There was "The Carpet Stretcher", who majored on "badly fitted" carpets and "Pothole Bill", who turned driving into potholes into a cottage industry. The queue of clients was soon as endless as the inventiveness of the salesmen. When a Liverpool bus, seating 72, crashed in 2002, hundreds filed claims. One representative, briefed to bring in four claims a day from a council estate, had usually done so by 10am. The most lucrative time was summer holidays, otherwise known as "McDonald's Season", when claims for burnt mouths from hot apple pies soared. McDonald's was also the unofficial headquarters for Accident Group managers. "The stream of apple pie claims did not seem to cause them any embarrassment."