As Broward car accident lawyers, we may be able to represent more than one person involved in the same car accident – but only when there is no conflict of interest between them. The problem, however, is that not all conflicts of interest are immediately apparent.
Defining a Conflict of Interest
As noted in Florida Rules Regulating the Florida Bar 4-1.7, some ethical conflicts of interest for lawyers exist when:
- The representation of one client would be directly adverse to another.
- There’s substantial risk that representing one or more client would be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, former client, or third person by a lawyer’s personal interest.
Such conflicts can sometimes be waived if the lawyer believes they can provide competent and diligent representation to all clients, the representation isn’t barred by law, and each affected client gives informed consent.
When Interests May Conflict for Broward Car Accident Victims
When it comes to Broward car accident cases, the most obvious conflict of interest would involve representation of one driver suing another for negligence. That would likely never happen.
Similarly, it’s highly unlikely a Broward car accident lawyer could ethically represent both an injured passenger and the driver being sued for the negligence that caused the passenger’s injuries.
Where the lines become a bit more blurred is when two people in the same crash are suing a third party for negligence that caused both their injuries. For example, it might make sense for two family members injured in the same car accident to hire one lawyer if the other driver was mostly if not entirely at-fault. This is particularly true if you’re a parent of minor children.
However, it’s important to understand that if a driver and passenger suing the same driver for the same act of alleged negligence, a conflict can arise because the money will be paid from the same pot. If the injuries of one person are more severe, fairness would stand to reason that they should get a larger chunk of the money. An attorney representing both clients may find themselves with a conflict of interest because they’re advocating for the maximum payout for each.
Also bear in mind that there are few South Florida car accidents in which one driver is entirely, 100 percent at-fault for the crash. There are often several factors. If you are a passenger in a car with a driver who was just partially at-fault, you may have viable claims against both drivers. In that situation, it would be a conflict of interest for a Broward personal injury lawyer to represent both you and the person who was driving the car you were in.
Florida Bar Ethics Opinion on Car Accident Lawyer Conflicts of Interest
The Florida Bar Professional Ethics Committee issued an opinion in 2002 that breaks down how Florida personal injury lawyers can determine whether there’s a conflict of interest in car accident cases. The original inquiry came from an attorney asked to represent both a passenger and driver in a lawsuit for negligence and property damage against a third-party driver.
The committee first pointed to a 1993 Florida Supreme Court ruling in in The Florida Bar v. Mastrilli, in which the Court held one attorney could not simultaneously represent both driver and passenger where a passenger is pursuing a damage claim for negligence against the driver.
Similarly, in State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. v. K.A.W., the Florida Supreme Court held that a law firm that represented a driver and passengers against third party insurers and tortfeasors couldn’t later represent passengers against the driver. This was even though the driver had a new lawyer and didn’t object to the passengers’ lawsuit.
Some of the scenarios laid out by the ethics committee:
- If there are no actual or potential claims against a driver by injured passengers, one attorney can ethically represent all parties against a third party, so long as there’s sufficient insurance coverage by that third party. However, if there is not sufficient insurance coverage, the attorney needs to explain the potential conflict of interest and all plaintiffs must agree about the distribution of benefits/recovery amongst themselves.
- If there’s evidence of negligence by the driver in a one-car accident, an attorney can’t represent both the driver and passenger. The only exception might be when a passenger and driver are members of the same family and the driver is uninsured/otherwise judgment-proof. Issues of comparative fault can come into play, though, so lawyers need to be very careful when accepting these cases.
- If the driver and passengers are all injured but evidence shows that the plaintiff driver was partially at fault, there’s a conflict of interest between the driver and passengers and a single attorney can’t represent them all ethically – even with everyone’s consent.
- If the passenger and driver are all family members and the driver is underinsured, uninsured, or otherwise judgment-proof, one attorney can ethically represent all parties against the driver’s UM/UIM policy – but only if the attorney determines it’s not worthwhile or appropriate for the plaintiff to sue the driver. An independent guardian or guardian ad litem may need to be appointed to ensure the interests of any minor children involved are protected.
If there is a situation in which a personal injury lawyers concludes there is a conflict of interest after already taking on the case, they may need to withdraw their representation. This could result in unfortunate delays. It’s worth noting too that because injury lawyers are paid on a contingency fee basis (meaning they aren’t paid fees unless/until they win), they won’t be paid if they need to withdraw representation early. This is why lawyers may be particular about the cases and clients they take on. It’s better for everyone in the long-run if potential conflicts of interest are identified at the outset.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
More Blog Entries:
Understanding Negligent Security at Florida Hotels – Fort Lauderdale Injury Lawyer Insight, Nov. 8, 2023, Fort Lauderdale Accident Lawyer Blog