Insurance companies often fight legal claims vigorously. Don’t believe us? Check out the strategy one tried to use to get an attorney disqualified from a case arising out of a Florida car accident in Merrett v. Liberty Mutual.
Mr. Merrett was seriously injured in a March 2009 car accident that resulted in the partial loss of his right leg. He sued the driver responsible for the crash, Ms. Bamping, as well as the car’s owners, Ms. Franklin (Bamping’s mother) and Legacy Construction of Jax (a construction company owned by Franklin). Merrett later settled the claims against all three parties for $3.25 million. As a result of the settlement, Bamping and Franklin also assigned to Merrett any claims that they may have against their insurer – Liberty Mutual – related to its handling of Merrett’s insurance claim.
Merrett promptly sued Liberty Mutual, asserting three claims concerning the company’s attempt to settle his claims against Bumping and Franklin for $50,000, the bodily injury limit under their auto insurance policy. Specifically, he alleged: 1) bad faith for Liberty Mutual’s handling of the adjustment and defense of Merritt’s insurance claim on behalf of Bamping and Franklin; 2) breach of the insurance contract, which required Liberty Mutual to pay damages related to Merrett’s injury; and (3) breach of fiduciary duty to Bamping and Franklin, based on the company’s handling of Merrett’s insurance claim.
Liberty Mutual later sought to have Merrett’s lawyer – who also represented Merrett in the original insurance claim – disqualified from the case, arguing that the lawyer would be a key witness on the dispositive issue: Merrett’s willingness to settle the claims against Bamping and Franklin for $50,000. “Defendant contends that if it can be shown Plaintiff was never willing to settle within the policy limits, then no matter what Defendant would have or could have done, it had no opportunity to settle and therefore, cannot be liable for bad faith,” the court explained.
Nevertheless, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied Liberty Mutual’s motion to disqualify the attorney. “Disqualification of counsel is an extraordinary remedy, and such motions are generally viewed with skepticism because they are often made for tactical purposes,” the court explained, citing the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida’s 2012 decision in Etkin & Co., Inc. v. SBD LLC.
The court rejected Liberty Mutual’s argument that the disqualification was required under rules governing attorneys in the Sunshine State. While one of those rules states that a lawyer should not represent a client in a case in which the attorney is expected to be a necessary witness on behalf of a client, the court explained that it is designed to protect the client – not an opposing party – from prejudice. Nor, according to the court, did Liberty Mutual show that the lawyer’s testimony was likely to be sufficiently adverse to Merrett’s version of the facts in order to warrant disqualification.
While the specific legal issue addressed in this case may not come up often, it’s a good example of the aggressive strategy that many big insurance companies employ in fighting claims. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident in Florida, contact the South Florida personal injury lawyers at Anidjar & Levine. From offices in Ft. Lauderdale, we serve clients throughout the area, including in Boca Raton, Hialeah and Pompano Beach. Call us toll-free at 800-747-3733 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.
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