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PA: No Vicarious Liability if Lawyer Did Not Act in the Scope of His Employment

Atkinson v. Haug, 622 A.2d 983 (Pa. Super. 1993).

PA: Underlying real estate investment

Student Contributor: Laura Binski

Facts: Atkinson entered into a partnership agreement for an apartment complex with Haug, his friend and business associate. Haug was also a lawyer at Acton & Acton, P.C (“Acton”). The business investment failed, and Atkinson brought a legal malpractice action against Haug for misrepresentation and professional negligence. Atkinson also sued Acton under the theory of vicarious liability, claiming that Haug offered faulty business advice within the scope of his employment at Acton. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Acton and Atkinson appealed.

Issue: Did a lawyer-client relationship exist between Atkinson and Haug that would defeat the trial court’s entry of summary judgment?

Ruling: No.

“Absent an express contract, an implied lawyer-client relationship will be found if (1) the purported client sought advice or assistance from the lawyer; (2) the advice sought was within the lawyer’s professional competence; (3) the lawyer expressly or impliedly agreed to give the assistance; and (4) it is reasonable for the client to believe the lawyer was representing him”

Sheinkopf v. Stone, 927 F.2d 1259 (1st Cir. 1991). Here, there was no express legal agreement, no fee arrangement or retainer, no discussion of legal consequences of the deal, and no indication that Atkinson asked Haug for legal advice. Therefore, there was no express or implied lawyer-client relationship. A subjective belief that a lawyer-client relationship exists is an insufficient basis to defeat summary judgment. If there was no lawyer-client relationship, it follows that Acton & Acton could not be held vicariously liable.

Lesson: Acton could only be held liable under the theory of vicarious liability if Haug was shown to be acting within the scope of his employment or with apparent authority from Acton. The mere fact that Haug happens to be a lawyer does not necessarily characterize everything he says as “legal advice.” Since there was no evidence that Haug was acting within the scope of his employment at Acton, vicarious liability does not exist.  

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Posted in: Pennsylvania, Real Estate, Vicarious Liability