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Privity in Admiralty Botched Wrongful Death Settlement

Chatterjee v. Due, 511 F. Supp. 183, 1982 A.M.C. 2970 (E.D. Pa. 1981)

Admiralty Law: Wrongful Death Settlement

Student Contributor: John Anzalone

Facts: Decedent was killed in a maritime ship collision in Pennsylvanian waters. Plaintiff, mother of the deceased, sues Defendant Law Firm that negotiated on behalf of one ship owner with her son-in-law in his suit to collect damages for her son’s death. Plaintiff claims no settlement regarding son’s death occurred because her son-in-law was not authorized to represent her interest as her son’s sole heir. Defendant entered into the settlement without her consent and her son-in-law received the proceeds of the settlement based on his forgeries.

Issue: Did Defendant-Lawyers owe the non-client Plaintiff any legal duty? 

Ruling: The court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that Defendant owed the plaintiff no legal duty of representation, based on the following considerations:
1) The theory allowing beneficiaries to sue a testator’s attorneys despite a lack of privity is not applicable here because the protection of a beneficiary’s interest and the testator’s intent only occurs if a will is validly drawn. Further, in a will, an attorney is on notice that the testator’s intent depends on their services. Will beneficiaries are allowed to sue because they are intended successors to a continuing attorney-client relationship between the attorney and the testator
2) Here, there is no will involved that would become defective through the acts of Defendant
3) Additionally, a reasonable attorney would have no reason to question his opponent’s authority to enter into a settlement.
4) Furthermore, Plaintiff’s claim fails because she cannot show that she was damaged by Defendant’s negligence unless she was foreclosed from some right or property because the settlement was valid and not effected by fraud. Her allegations against her son-in-law undermine this because if they were true, the settlement would be invalid and not binding upon her.
5) Even if there was a valid settlement binding upon her, there is no duty running between Defendant and Plaintiff.

Lesson: A plaintiff has to be actually damaged before they can sue a lawyer for malpractice. Additionally, attorneys can agree to make payments from their client to their adversary if a reasonable lawyer would conclude that there was no reason to doubt their adversary’s authority to agree to the settlement. 

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Posted in: Federal, Privity, Torts/Personal Injury