September 02, 2020 Top Story

Attorney Immunity Bars Claims for Fraud and Conversion

Doctrine increasingly upheld, but has limits

By C. Thea Pitzen

A state supreme court recently held that attorneys can assert immunity as a defense to claims such as fraud and conversion if the conduct in question is in furtherance of client representation. ABA Section of Litigation leaders see a trend in multiple states upholding the doctrine of attorney immunity. They caution, however, that there are limits to the doctrine and that it should not be considered a “license to misbehave.”

The plaintiff sued the defense attorney for fraud and conversion for mishandling evidence of allegedly faulty brakes

The plaintiff sued the defense attorney for fraud and conversion for mishandling evidence of allegedly faulty brakes

Credit: gilaxia | iStockphoto by Getty Images

Bethel v. Quilling

A plaintiff’s husband died in a car accident while towing a trailer. The plaintiff sued the trailer’s manufacturer, alleging that faulty brakes caused the accident. Counsel for the manufacturer disassembled and tested the brakes during the course of discovery, but before plaintiff’s counsel had an opportunity to examine them. The plaintiff then sued the defense attorney (and firm) from the personal injury case for, among other things, fraud and conversion in connection with their handling of the evidence.

The trial court in the second case, Bethel v. Quilling, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the basis of attorney immunity. The court of appeals affirmed. Counsel’s actions were “possibly wrongful,” the court explained, but “were the ‘kinds of actions’ that are part of an attorney’s duties in representing a client in litigation,” such that attorney immunity barred all of the plaintiff’s claims.

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