TX: Underlying personal injury then bankruptcy, post judgment
Student Contributor: Brad Kvinta (J.D. (2010), Texas Tech University School of Law, B.S. (2006)Texas A & M University)
FACTS: In 1995, a vehicle driven by Kayla Segerstrom (Segerstrom) was involved in a collision with a vehicle driven by the Colvins. The collision caused one death and other serious injuries. The Colvins sued Segerstrom, her parents, and her parents’ sole proprietorship (“defendants”). The defendants’ insurance company hired Touchstone as defense counsel. A judgment was then entered solely against Segerstrom. Shortly thereafter, “the Colvins filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Segerstrom.” The bankruptcy estate (“estate”) then filed a complaint against Touchstone and the insurance company. “The complaint alleged that Touchstone had an inherent conflict of interest in representing Segerstrom, her parents, and her parents’ sole proprietorship as defendants in the same litigation.” “In October 1998, Segerstrom’s personal liability to the Colvins was discharged.” Summary judgment was entered against the estate, and the trustee appealed.
ISSUE: Whether Segerstrom’s bankruptcy estate included a legal malpractice claim against Touchstone and, if so, whether Touchstone, and the insurance company, are liable under that claim?
RULING: On appeal, the court indicated that Segerstrom’s bankruptcy estate included a legal malpractice claim against Touchstone. “As of the commencement of Segerstrom’s bankruptcy case, a legal malpractice claim against Touchstone had accrued to Segerstrom according to Texas law.” See In re Swift, 129 F.3d 792, 795-96 (5th Cir. 1997). “Segerstrom never denied or waived that malpractice action prior to the commencement of her bankruptcy.” Thus, the court indicated that the estate could maintain a legal malpractice claim against Touchstone.
Although the court indicated that a legal malpractice action could be filed on behalf of the estate, the estate did not prove that “but for the manner in which Touchstone conducted her defense, Segerstrom would have obtained a better result in the prior litigation.” In other words, the estate failed to prove the Segerstrom suffered any injury as a result of the alleged malpractice.
The court based this conclusion on Segerstrom’s post-petition affidavit, which denied the existence of a legal malpractice claim. The court noted that although this affidavit is irrelevant to the existence of a legal malpractice claim, it “carries considerable weight in determining whether the estate has met its burden of establishing injury and causation in accordance with Texas law.” Therefore, summary judgment in favor of Touchstone was proper.
Further, “Texas requires that insurance companies act with reasonable care in fulfilling their duty to defend under insurance contracts.” See Meridian Oil Production, Inc. v. Hartford Accident, 27 F.3d 150, 153 (5th Cir. 1994). The court indicated that the estate pointed to no authority in Texas that shows this duty requires the insurance company to identify conflicts and take steps to address them prior to hiring legal counsel for its insured. The court also indicated that even if this duty existed, there is insufficient evidence presented to support a breach of that duty. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of the insurance company was proper.
LESSON: Lawyers may be liable for legal malpractice to a plaintiff’s successor in interest. A successor in interest is a person entitled to the same legal rights as the plaintiff. In other words, a successor in interest is free to pursue any claim that the plaintiff was entitled to pursue. Thus, a lawyer must defend a legal malpractice claim against a successor in interest so long as the successor in interest is legally entitled to pursue such a claim and meets all requirements to successfully prosecute the claim.
In this case, legal malpractice claims survive the initiation of bankruptcy proceedings, even if personal liability in the underlying lawsuit has been discharged. Trustees (the successor in interest in this case) are free to pursue any claims which the debtor could have pursued prior to the initiation of a bankruptcy proceeding. Further, there is no duty under Texas law for an insurance company to identify conflicts and take steps to rectify said conflicts prior to the commencement of any legal proceeding.