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While this case is happening to a relative of mine rather than myself, I will speak in first person for the sake of simplicity.

I had a medical procedure performed by a licensed doctor (Dr. A). This doctor subsequently left the clinic and when I came back for a checkup I was seen by another doctor (Dr. B), who found nothing wrong. A year or so later, during a regular checkup, Dr. B discovered that the medical procedure performed by Dr. A was completely botched and must be redone at a cost of roughly $10,000. Both doctors refused to acknowledge any wrong doing or provide any refund or free work.

I hired a licensed legal professional to sue both doctors on the grounds of negligence, seeking $10,000 in damages to pay for the re-work. The agreement specified that the lawyer would receive 1/3 of the amount won (or be entitled to some pay in the case of a loss). The case was going well, and after a cross-examination of all parties by other parties' lawyers, my lawyer advised me that I have a strong case and advised raising the damage claim significantly (more than double).

A week or two later, my lawyer sent me an email advising that after consulting with an expert, he has decided that the case against Dr. B is not strong and has withdrawn his name from the lawsuit and Dr. B is no longer a defendant. He further recommended reducing the claim down to a point where my 2/3 share would not even cover the procedure anymore.

I have limited experience, but my impression was always that legal council is there to advise me, NOT to make key decision for me, such as simply dropping one of the defendants. Is this normal practice? Keep in mind that we've been communicating by email, and I've been reasonably prompt, usually replying the same day.

  • 2
    Sounds sketchy but more info is needed. He might not be explaining things properly. There may be procedural reasons for dropping a defendant. There may be statutory reasons for lowering damages. See ABA Model Rule 1.2 and the comments. Generally lawyers make decisions about how to accomplish "objectives, particularly with respect to technical, legal and tactical matters." americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/… – jqning Jun 4 '15 at 13:09
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Based solely on what you've described, what the lawyer did is inappropriate if, in fact, it occurred without any prior permissions. However, since you are not the actual client, it may be that you lack pertinent info, because this would be exceedingly rare behavior. Lawyers are allowed to make procedural and "expert"/professional decisions about your case without your consent, and do so all the time. As a general rule: we decide who to depose, what expert(s) are necessary to prove your claim, what questions to ask in discovery, what to say and when to say it when attempting to settle, and what witnesses to call vs. not to call at panel or trial. All of that is in the purview of the attorney's general discretion and work product.

However, attorneys cannot diminish, amend, or settle your claim without your permission, unless you've signed a limited representation agreement and/or a prior authorization to do these things with a waiver of consultation on issues relating to settlement.

(It is not uncommon for a client to say, "My bottom line is X; hence, you have my permission to settle the case for anything over that amount.") A client may also, subsequently, give verbal consent, saying things like "just do your best and get what you can".

Contingency and Total Award Strategies

Since you aren't the one having entered into the contract, you may not be privy to the existence of these types of contingencies. Agreements like this are very common when an attorney takes a weaker med mal claim. It may be that the lawyer will only take the case to the extent that they will try to settle, and may even file the case, with the understanding that they will never try the case. It is a way to try to get you as much as possible when all facts come to light, without agreeing to the expense of a trial. This happens a lot. In these situations, when you are trying to settle a claim that ends up being much less valuable than the attorney thought when he took the case, the insurance carrier will often say, "We will pay X on the claim if Doctor Doe is dismissed out," or something like that. Often lawyers intentionally over-file, in hopes there are two carriers (the more insurance the more money to make you go away) that they can try to settle with. When it turns out both docs are covered under one insurance carrier, then the weaker claim will often get dismissed out. It is a strategic decision to add them, and to dismiss them – and this is very common. Proving malpractice against one doctor is hard enough; trying to prove that you are the victim of double malpractice, back to back, is nearly impossible.

All of that said, even if a client has entered into these types of limited or decisional authority-granting agreements, the lawyer still has a duty to keep the client apprised of what's going on. The client may decide later they don't like how little the attorney is stating the claim is worth (despite being forewarned this may happen, it happens all the time that when it actually occurs the client is not happy). In that case, they have the right to find a new lawyer, but that will be very difficult to do for a few reasons: (1) the original attorney is entitled to get paid for the work done under a theory known as “quantum meruit,” so other attorneys will be hesitant to get involved; (2) they will put a lien on any recovery for the amount of time and expenses, to be paid from any settlements or awards (and they get paid first, before the client or the new lawyer); (3) if a client gets angry and says they want to just drop the case rather than have the lawyer make more than the client, even after a year or more of work, all of the costs will still be owed by the client; (4) the potential new attorney will call the one who has the case and ask about whether the client has unreasonable expectations, if their case has any value, etc. Keep mind, if an attorney is doing the things you've described, they probably would suffer no love loss if the case went away.

Malpractice in Context

It very often happens, especially in medical malpractice cases, that a client will come in and describe the case one way, and then when the medical records arrive and the attorney and/or the paralegal/nurse-para review them, and all the facts get flushed out, it turns out things occurred a bit (or a lot) differently than the client described or recalled in the first place. This is typically not a matter, 99% of the time, of the client lying to the attorney, but rather it is merely the phenomenon of memories being based on their perception of the events/their care, rather than verifiable fact and established medical standards. (This is why eye-witness testimony is so notably unreliable: 10 people can witness the same event and there will inevitably be 10 different descriptions.) One thing all clients should be told by their lawyer (and you should only hire an experienced medical malpractice lawyer for these cases) is that bad outcomes do not equal negligence. Lay people often think that if something bad occurred while under the care of a doctor, this is the case, but it is not the measure of malpractice. Sometimes, even when the doctor does everything according to their specialty/industry standard, bad outcomes happen. Malpractice/negligence only occurs when they have deviated from this standard of care - outcome notwithstanding.

The inverse is also true, when it comes to a bad outcome. The doctor may have breached the standard of care, but this cannot be determined by the patient - the law requires expert testimony to establish this. Sometimes bad outcomes are just the risk of the procedure. This is why patients sign (but rarely read) the informed consent forms, that describe in detail, and state the patient is aware, of all the potential bad outcomes that may occur during the procedure. Negligence, or a "breach of the standard of care" occurs when the typical physician (not the best expert in the world, just the normal, typical doctor in that field) would have found the actions to be unreasonable and never acceptable given the totality of the circumstances. Once you prove that, you then still need to prove that is what caused your damages (not the disease, or the ailment itself). Unfortunately, even with the best physicians, bad outcomes happen all the time.

It is very common, to the point of being almost predictable, that a medical malpractice claim's value will depart from the original ballpark estimate of value that an attorney tries to "best guess" at the outset. When your attorney tries to value a case, they roughly estimate your "special damages", which consists of medical bills, lost income, lost earning capacity, and other quantifiable sums. Then, they must try to assess the market rate award for pain and suffering for the type injury you've sustained. This is only guesswork, based on jury verdict reports, reported settlements, and the jurisdictional leanings toward large or small verdicts (comparatively). As the case evolves, as facts come to lights, as experts are consulted - this is when these estimates can largely deviate from the original guesstimate based on very limited information.

Risks of Contingency Representation

At any rate, when a lawyer takes a case on contingency (when they agreed to get paid only if they recover, and not until they recover, aside from out of pocket expenses), they do this because they've relied on the client's account of what happened, as well as their initial assessment of the records, usually prior to hiring an expert (if they even intended to hire one because they agreed to take the case all the way through trial). You must understand that attorneys don't like when a case loses value any more than the client; in fact, probably less as they are the ones who've invested often hundreds of hours in the case at that point. This is how they make their money. Thirty-three percent of a small amount is not the same as that of a large amount. And many, many hours go into these cases. An attorney can make far more than their hourly rate on a great case, but this is balanced by making far, far less on cases whose values plummet as facts come to light. When a case appears to lost much of it's initially estimated value, the attorney will still try to maximize recovery; however, it may not seem that way to the client because after they take their third, and then recoup their expenses (which is on top of the third and is the responsibility of the client win-or-lose), clients can end up with almost nothing. This is because the expense of these cases is enormous and it is the problem with that area of law and the system in general. It is not uncommon for a medical malpractice case to cost, out of pocket, $200,000 or more! This is why so few people are able to get a lawyer to take these cases, and often when they do, it's on the very limited basis I described.

Med Malpractice Primer

Med Mal cases are some of the hardest cases to win and they are by far some of the most expensive cases to try. This in not accidental. Depending on the state you live in, tort reform (a legislative effort to limit the amount of medical malpractice claims filed and tried overall, as well as limiting their total recovery) can range from limits on damages, to very short windows for statute of limitations, to the requirements (like where I practice) where you must literally try the case twice – once before a med mal screening panel, who hears all your witnesses just as a jury does, and then decides whether the case should (and in some cases can) go forward. In some states (I happen to practice in one) the findings are admissible in court (not the evidence but the finding). So, if the MMPT screening panel finds the doctor was not negligent, or was, but the damages were within the standard disclosed potential outcomes, so there was no causation, or myriad other things, if you decide (or in some states, if you even still get to go to court) the defense gets to say to the jury that the legislatively enacted Med Mal Pre-trial screening panel found X (no negligence, causation, or damages – or all three). These panels are usually comprised of a lawyer (75% defense lawyers) or a judge, and two doctors who are biased against these types of cases in the first place). Also, if your expert gets torn apart on an issue during panel phase, anything they admit can be used against them in the trial. I say all this to help you understand that these cases are made, by the legislature, to be very hard to even find a lawyer to take, very hard to win, and exceedingly expensive to litigate. This is based on the (fallacious) theory that medical malpractice claims should be limited to the most serious claims because this litigation is so costly, and so impactful on the rates all citizens pay for insurance, that the legislature has seen fit to make them very difficult to prosecute, thereby weeding out weak claims.

Bottom Line

If the client truly feels their lawyer did something they did not have permission (either explicitly in writing, or verbally) to do, they need to talk to the attorney, explain their discomfort with the situation, and figure out why it occurred and if it was truly in the best interest of the case and the client. If the lawyer cannot adequately answer those questions, they should get a second opinion. The client can demand that anything the attorney did be undone, if it was the type of thing that is in the client's control. One would need to see the engagement letter and retention agreement, and also be privy to the conversations. It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for a client to say they understand what the lawyer is proposing when they don't. If you find that's the case, you may have them ask that all determinations be put in writing, with an explanation as to why.

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Lawyers have two primary ethical duties: to the client, and to the legal system.

I'm not going to tell you whether your lawyer was right in your case, because I don't know the specifics of your case.

However, there are some decisions that are the lawyer's to make, even if the client disagrees. The allocation of responsibility, in most jurisdictions, is governed by some version of Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2.

However, the MRPC also imposes other duties on the lawyer, including the duty not to bring or to advocate for a frivolous claim (see MRPC 3.1).

If facts came to light that made it clear that the claim against a specific person were frivolous, then no matter what you told him to do, he could not ethically prosecute that claim.

  • Does that mean he drops the claim, though? It seems like it'd be possible to tell the client "I can't do this, and I must qwithdraw if you don't drop it." – cpast Jun 6 '15 at 22:08
  • Withdrawal from representation has its own rules, but that would be outcome under some circumstances. There are differences between the Model code and some State's actual rules as to when withdrawal becomes mandatory. – daffy Jul 23 '15 at 19:04

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