NJ Underlying Personal Injury Suit
Facts: Client’s insurance company retained Attorney to defend Client in a personal injury suit arising from a car accident. Attorney informed Client that if he wished to make a cross-claim for property damages, he must do so in this action. Client responded that he wanted Attorney to represent him for the cross-claim. Attorney then wrote to Client twice in order to discuss his fees. Client did not respond until after the second letter, stating that he had made other arrangements in order to collect property damages. However, Attorney had already filed the cross-claim. Although Client informed Attorney of his decision to pursue other methods of collecting his property damages, Attorney did not inform the court or opposing counsel that he no longer represented Client in the cross-claim. More importantly, he did not inform Client of the pending motion that he had filed, did not send him the relevant papers, and did not inform Client of the court’s dismissal of the cross-claim. Attorney only explained to Client the entire situation after he later found out that Client had not yet collected property damages and was waiting until after the trial to file a claim.
Issue: Does an attorney who is representing a client for one matter owe any duty to the client regarding another claim after the client rejects representation for that claim?
Ruling: An attorney must protect a client’s interests even after the client has rejected representation for a certain claim. See N.J. R.P.C. 1.16(d). Thus, an attorney is negligent as a matter of law when he
1) fails to inform a client who has rejected his representation of the dismissal of the client’s claim; and
2) fails to inform the court and opposing counsel that he longer represents a client in a matter.
1) An attorney who has already initiated a claim on behalf of a client may not abandon that client when he rejects the attorney’s representation. The attorney must notify the client, the court and opposing counsel, in order to protect the client’s interests. See N.J. R.P.C. 1.16(d).
2) As the court here noted, an attorney can avoid these problems if he meets with the client in person from the outset!
NOTE: The court modified this case with regard to the amount of damages. Strauss v. Fost, 213 N.J. Super. 239, 517 A.2d 143 (App. Div. 1986).