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RPC 251

July 18, 1997

Representation of Multiple Claimants

 

Opinion rules that a lawyer may represent multiple claimants in a personal injury case, even though the available insurance proceeds are insufficient to compensate all claimants fully, provided each claimant, or his or her legal representative gives informed consent to the representation, and the lawyer does not advocate against the interests of any client in the division of the insurance proceeds.

 

Inquiry #1:

 

Attorney A represents four unrelated adults on their individual claims for personal injuries arising out of an accident which occurred when the bus on which they were riding collided with an automobile. As passengers, none of the claimants is liable for the accident and there are no crossclaims between the claimants. Inadequate settlement offers were received and it is now apparent that the available insurance coverage is not sufficient to compensate all of the claimants fully. May Attorney A continue to represent the multiple claimants?

 

Opinion #1:

 

Yes, provided the claimants give informed consent to the multiple representation.

 

The representation of multiple claimants in a common accident can lead to two different conflicts of interest. On the one hand, there may be questions of liability and, therefore, potential crossclaims among the claimants. Representing clients with potential claims against each other places the lawyer in the position of being an advocate against his or her own client or clients and, ordinarily, is impermissible. See Rule 5.1(a). On the other hand, although there may be no crossclaims between the claimants, as in this inquiry, when there are limited insurance funds from which multiple claimants may be compensated, there is a potential for competition between the claimants for their share of the insurance proceeds. A lawyer who represents multiple claimants in this situation risks becoming an advocate for the increased recovery of one claimant at the expense of the other claimants. Nevertheless, this potential conflict does not involve directly antagonistic interests and can be more readily managed than the former conflict.

 

Rule 5.1(b) permits a lawyer to represent a client, even though the representation of the client may be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client, if the lawyer reasonably believes that the representation of the client will not be adversely affected and the client consents after full disclosure including an explanation of the risks and advantages of common representation. In the current inquiry, a lawyer may determine that he or she will be able to facilitate an acceptable division of the insurance proceeds among the multiple claimants without advocating against the interests of any of the claimants. Moreover, to require each claimant to have a separate lawyer to prove liability may result in a duplication of effort and additional expense for the claimants. Therefore, a lawyer may represent multiple claimants provided there are no conflicts with regard to the liability issue and the lawyer obtains informed consent from all of the claimants at the beginning of the representation. The disclosure to the claimants must include an explanation of the consequences of limited insurance funds and the possibility that there may be a dispute among the claimants as to the division of the insurance proceeds.

 

If the case is tried, the lawyer must zealously represent the damage claims of each of the claimants and let the jury decide the amount that each will recover. If an offer of settlement is made, the lawyer may facilitate mediation among the claimants to determine how the offer will be divided. See RPC 123. Alternatively, the claimants may agree to accept the recommendation of the lawyer with regard to an equitable division of the settlement offer. The lawyer may make such a recommendation only if the lawyer can do so impartially. See RPC 123. The lawyer must withdraw from the representation of all of the claimants if the lawyer is placed in the role of advocate for one or more of the claimants against the other claimants. The lawyer must also withdraw from the representation if one or more of the claimants do not agree to accept the settlement offer. Rule 5.7. If the lawyer must withdraw, the lawyer may continue to represent one or more of the claimants only with the consent of the claimants whose cases the lawyer relinquishes. Rule 5.1(d) and RPC 123.

 

Inquiry #2:

 

Attorney A represents six minor children and two adults on their claims for personal injuries which occurred when the school bus in which they were riding was involved in an accident. It is assumed Attorney A also represents the parents of the minor claimants on their separate claims for the medical expenses incurred by their children. After receiving inadequate settlement offers, Attorney A filed suit. It then became apparent that the available insurance proceeds are insufficient to compensate all claimants fully.

 

May attorney A represent the eight injured claimants?

 

Opinion #2:

 

Yes, provided there are no crossclaims between the claimants and, at the beginning of the representation, each claimant, or claimant's legal guardian, gives informed consent to the multiple representation. See opinion #1 above. Before a lawsuit is filed, the parents or legal guardian of each minor may give such consent. RPC 123. After litigation is commenced, even if it is for the sole purpose of obtaining court approval of the settlements of the minors' claims, independent guardians ad litem must be appointed for the minors and the guardians ad litem must give informed consent to the multiple representation. To be independent, a guardian ad litem should have no separate claim of his or her own to pursue, including a claim for medical expenses for a dependent child. See RPC 109 and RPC 123. The disclosure at the beginning of the representation, and to the guardians ad litem, must include an explanation of the consequences of limited insurance funds and the possibility of a dispute among the claimants as to the division of the insurance proceeds. Rule 5.1 (b).

 

See opinion #1 with regard to the lawyer's role upon receipt of an offer to settle the multiple claims.

 

Inquiry #3:

 

In the situation described in inquiry #2, may Attorney A represent more than one child from the same family?

 

Opinion #3:

 

Yes, subject to the requirements set forth in opinions #1 and #2 above.

 

Inquiry #4:

 

May Attorney A represent the parents of one of the minor claimants on the parents' claim for medical expenses and also represent the minor child through an independent guardian ad litem?

 

Opinion #4:

 

Yes. See opinion #2 and RPC 123.

 

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