Editor's Note: See RPC 251 for additional guidance.
Representation of Parents and Child
Opinion rules that a lawyer may represent parents and an independent guardian ad litem for their child concerning related tort claims under certain circumstances.
A child is injured due to the apparent malpractice of a physician. Incident to the injury there accrues to the parents of the child a claim against the physician for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Under what circumstances, if any, may the same attorney represent the interests of the parents and the child?
Note: This opinion is intended to address in a broader way the issues raised in RPC 109. It is offered for the general guidance of the bar and is not intended to contradict the advice given in response to the specific facts recited in RPC 109.
Although the interests of the parents and the child are potentially in conflict, an attorney may represent the parents and through them the child in negotiating with the physician or his insurer prior to the initiation of litigation. Once a lawsuit is commenced, the attorney should insist upon the appointment of an independent guardian ad litem for the child. If it appears that the interests of the parents and the child will not necessarily conflict, the attorney may undertake to represent both with the intelligent consent of the parents and the child's independent guardian ad litem. Since the interests of the child and the parents would be inextricably linked in the establishment of the physician's liability for negligence, it is unlikely that any actual conflict between the attorney's two clients would arise prior to the receipt of a settlement offer. Should the defendant make a joint offer requiring the plaintiffs to divide the proceeds, the potential conflict of interest would become actual. Given the fact that the attorney's clients are bound by family ties and would have economic interests which would not be necessarily antagonistic, the conflict of interest would not automatically disqualify the attorney from continuing the joint representation. In some instances it may also be appropriate for an attorney to attempt to assist his clients in evaluating their respective claims and in amicably agreeing to an equitable and appropriate division which could then be presented to the court for its approval. Under no circumstances may the attorney, while representing both clients, assume a role of advocacy for one as opposed to the other.
Should it become apparent to the attorney that his clients' conflicting interests cannot be mediated, the attorney will generally be required to withdraw from the representation of both. It is conceivable that the attorney may continue to represent one or the other with the consent of the former client whose case he relinquishes. Rule 5.1(d).
THE NORTH CAROLINA STATE BAR
217 E. Edenton Street • PO Box 25908 • Raleigh, NC 27611-5908 • 919.828.4620
Copyrightę North Carolina State Bar. All rights reserved.