Thursday, February 2, 2012

Appeals Court holds insurer not liable for misrepresentations of attorney representing it in subrogation action

During a delivery of heating oil to the residence of Elaine Sandman a delivery line burst, causing her basement to flood with oil. Sandman's insurer, Quincy Mutual, agreed to cover the cost of cleaning the spill, but the policy excluded coverage for damage to Sandman's personal property.

Quincy Mutual hired an attorney to bring a subrogation action against the oil delivery company. According to Sandman's complaint, over the course of five years the attorney consistently led her to believe that he represented her interests as well as those of Quincy Mutual and that he was seeking to recover her damages for loss to personal property.

Quincy Mutual's subrogation claim settled in the spring of 2009. At that time the attorney informed Sandman that he could not help her with her own claim because of a conflict of interest as Quincy Mutual's attorney. Sandmans' claims were barred by that time by the statute of limitations.

Sandman sued the attorney and Quincy Mutual. Quincy Mutual moved to dismiss, on the ground that it was not vicariously liable to Sandman for the attorney's malpractice and misrepresentations.

In Sandman v. Quincy Mut. Fire Ins.Co., 81 Mass. App. Ct. 188 (2012), Judge Grasso held that as a matter of law Quincy Mutual cannot be vicariously liable for the representations and professional negligence of the attorney, "because as an attorney and an independent professional he has a nondelegable duty of care to Sandman." Neither an insurer nor any other third party may exercise control over the independent judgment in the representation of a client.

Judge Brown dissented. Whereas Judge Grasso analyzed the issue from the perspective of the attorney's attorney-client relationship with Sandman, Judge Brown analyzed the issue from the perspective of the attorney's attorney-client relationship with Quincy Mutual. He wrote that the allegations of the complaint were sufficient to establish that the attorney may have had actual authority to act on behalf of Quincy Mutual. He also noted that the acts of an attorney in the conduct of litigation are binding upon the client. He distinguished cases discussing liability of an insurer for counsel it hired to represent an insured, because in that situation the attorney, while paid by the insurer, does not represent the insurer; in the present situation the attorney represented Quincy Mutual.

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