Representation of Insurance Carrier after Insured Disappears
Opinion rules that a lawyer retained by an insurance carrier to represent an insured whose whereabouts are unknown and with whom the lawyer has no contact may not appear as the lawyer for the insured absent authorization by law or court order.
Attorney was retained by Insurance Carrier to defend Insured in a negligence lawsuit based upon an automobile accident. Insured cannot be located and his whereabouts are unknown. Service by publication was required. May Attorney proceed with the representation, file pleadings on behalf of Insured, and appear in court to defend the case on behalf of Insured?
No. To respond to this inquiry, the question of whether a client-lawyer relationship is created between Attorney and Insured must be addressed. Comment  of Rule 0.2, Scope, provides that "for purposes of determining the lawyer's authority and responsibility, principles of substantive law external to these Rules determine whether a client-lawyer relationship exists." In most instances, the Ethics Committee declines to offer an opinion that hinges upon a question of law. Nevertheless, the determination of whether a client-lawyer relationship exists is often essential to the committee's interpretation and application of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Moreover, the relevant North Carolina case law is clear. In Dunkley v. Shoemate, 350 N.C. 573, 515 S.E. 2d 442 (1999), the Supreme Court held that where a law firm had no contact with the defendant and was not authorized by the defendant to undertake his representation, no lawyer-client relationship existed between the defendant and the lawyers seeking to represent him pursuant to the insurance trust fund for the defendant's employer. The Dunkley opinion cites favorably the following statement from Johnson v. Amethyst Corp., 120 N.C. App. 529, 463 S.E. 2d 397 (1995): "[n]o person has the right to appear as another's attorney without the authority to do so, granted by the party for which he [or she] is appearing." Id. at 577, 515 S.E. 2d at 444 [quoting Amethyst Corp. 120 N.C. App. at 532, 463 S.E. 2d at 400]. The Court also concurred with the statement in Amethyst Corp. that, "North Carolina law has long recognized that an attorney-client relationship is based upon principles of agency," and "[t]wo factors are essential in establishing an agency relationship: (1) The agent must be authorized to act for the principal; and (2) The principal must exercise control over the agent.'" Id. [quoting Amethyst Corp., 120 N.C. App. at 533-534, 463 S.E. 2d at 400].
Therefore, unless allowed by statute, court order, or subsequent case law, a lawyer may not appear in court for a party who has not authorized the representation and with whom the lawyer has not established a client-lawyer relationship.
Would the response to Inquiry #1 be different if the insurance contract with Insured specifies that Insurance Carrier has the authority to choose legal counsel for Insured and to decide whether to settle the case?
Would the response to Inquiry #1 be different if Insured received actual notice of the lawsuit and contacted Insurance Carrier before disappearing?
Whether such contact with Insurance Carrier is sufficient to create a client-lawyer relationship with a lawyer selected by Insurance Carrier is a question of fact and law not resolved by the existing case law. However, the Ethics Committee doubts that the two factors required to establish an agency relationship exist in this situation. See also Dunkley, 350 N.C. at 578, 515 S.E. 2d at 445 ("RPC 223, Rule 1.2(a), and Amethyst Corp. correctly emphasize the principle that a lawyer cannot properly represent a client with whom he has no contact.").
Would the response to Inquiry #1 be different if Insured received notice of the lawsuit and specifically authorized the representation before disappearing?
Yes, Attorney may appear in the lawsuit on behalf of Insured if Insured has authorized the representation. However, if Insured cannot thereafter be located, Attorney may not mislead the court about Insured's absence. Rule 3.3(a)(1). Moreover, in the event Insured is not present to participate in the representation, Attorney may have to file a motion to withdraw. Rule 1.2, cmt.  (Client has "the ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by legal representation85."); Rule 1.16; RPC 223; 03 FEO 16; see also Dunkley, 350 N.C. at 578, 515 S.E. 2d at 445 ("a lawyer cannot properly represent a client with whom he has no contact.").
Would the response to Inquiry #1 be different if the insurance contract contained a provision granting Insurance Carrier the express authority to proceed with the representation on behalf of and in the name of the Insured in the event contact with Insured is lost?
This is a question of law that is not resolved by the existing case law and is outside the purview of the Ethics Committee.
Attorney is retained by Insurance Carrier to defend a "John Doe" defendant in an automobile accident case. May Attorney represent "John Doe" in the court proceedings?
If the designation of a certain person as "John Doe" is necessary to effect service of process and Attorney concludes that he is able to identify the intended person (e.g., an employee of an insured defendant company), Attorney may work with Insurance Carrier and the defendant company to identify the individual and, once identified, may appear in the lawsuit on behalf of the individual if authorized to do so by the individual. If the identity of "John Doe" cannot be ascertained by Attorney, Insurance Carrier, or another client, whether Attorney may represent "John Doe" in the court proceedings is a question of law outside the purview of the Ethics Committee.