Wednesday, May 30, 2018
The South Carolina Supreme Court has held that an insurance company may bring a malpractice action directly against retained counsel
Sentry Select Insurance Company brought a legal malpractice lawsuit in federal district court against the lawyer it hired to defend its insured in an automobile accident case. The district court requested that we answer the following questions:
(1) Whether an insurer may maintain a direct malpractice action against counsel hired to represent its insured where the insurance company has a duty to defend?
(2) Whether a legal malpractice claim may be assigned to a third-party who is responsible for payment of legal fees and any judgment incurred as a result of the litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose?
The answer to question one is "yes," under the limitations we will describe below. We decline to answer question two.
The alleged malpractice
Sentry Select hired Roy P. Maybank of the Maybank Law Firm to defend a trucking company Sentry Select insured in a personal injury lawsuit in state court. Maybank failed to timely answer requests to admit served by the plaintiff pursuant to Rule 36(a) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. Seven months later, Maybank filed a motion seeking additional time to answer the requests, which the circuit court held under advisement until the parties completed mediation. Sentry Select claims that because of Maybank's failure to timely answer the requests, and the likelihood the circuit court would deem them admitted, it settled the case for $900,000, when Maybank had previously represented to Sentry Select it could settle in a range of $75,000 to $125,000.
Answer to question one
...an insurance company that hires an attorney to represent its insured is in a unique position in relation to the resulting attorney-client relationship. Pursuant to the insurance contract, the insurer has a duty to defend its insured, and must compensate the attorney for his time in defense of his client. If the insured settles or has judgment imposed against him, the insurance contract ordinarily requires the insurer to pay the settlement or judgment. Many insurance contracts provide the insurer has a right to investigate and settle claims as a representative of its insured. Finally, the insurer's right to settle must be exercised in good faith, and that duty of good faith requires the insurer to act reasonably in protecting the insured from liability in excess of the policy limits. Tiger River Pine Co. v. Maryland Cas. Co., 163 S.C. 229, 234-35, 161 S.E. 491, 493-94 (1931).
Because of the insurance company's unique position, we hold the answer to question one is yes, an insurer may bring a direct malpractice action against counsel hired to represent its insured. However, we will not place an attorney in a conflict between his client's interests and the interests of the insurer. Thus, the insurer may recover only for the attorney's breach of his duty to his client, when the insurer proves the breach is the proximate cause of damages to the insurer. If the interests of the client are the slightest bit inconsistent with the insurer's interests, there can be no liability of the attorney to the insurer, for we will not permit the attorney's duty to the client to be affected by the interests of the insurance company. Whether there is any inconsistency between the client's and the insurer's interests in the circumstances of an individual case is a question of law to be answered by the trial court.
Chief Justice Beatty dissented
I respectfully dissent. I would answer both questions in the negative and hold that an insurer may not maintain a direct legal malpractice claim against an insured's hired counsel and that a legal malpractice claim may not be assigned to a third party responsible for any judgment and legal fees. In deciding otherwise, the majority provides the insurer a windfall at the cost of preserving the attorney-client relationship, which is a decision I cannot support.
Justice Hearn concuured in the dissent. (Mike Frisch)