When in Doubt, Rule Conflict Out

Florida’s First District Court of Appeals recently held  that a trial court did not depart from the essential requirements of law or Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-1.7(b) by disqualifying a law firm due to an “unreasonable” conflict of interest.

Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-7.1(b) governs whether a lawyer or law firm may represent a client despite the existence of a concurrent conflict involving another client. Under this rule, the clients who are affected by the dual representation may give informed consent to allow the representation to continue despite the conflict. However, the court in Anheuser-Busch Cos. v. Staples concluded that the conflict in this particular case could not be waived because (1) it was unreasonable for the firm to believe that it would be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client; and (2) because the representation of one client involved the assertion of a position adverse to another client.

The lawsuit in Anheuser-Busch initially stemmed from injuries that Christopher Staples sustained while working in a brewery owned by Anheuser-Busch. Staples’s employer provided him with workers’ compensation for these injuries, but Staples subsequently filed suit for negligence and premises liability against Anheuser-Busch to seek damages for his injuries. Fernandez Trial Lawyers, P.A. (“the Firm”) appeared on behalf of Anheuser-Busch. The Firm also filed a Notice of Lien pursuant to Fl. Stat. § 440.39(3)(a) in the tort action on behalf of Staples’s employer, which asserted that the employer paid workers’ compensation benefits to Staples and was entitled to reimbursement from any recovery Staples might receive from Anheuser-Busch.

Ultimately, the court found that representing both Anheuser-Busch and Staples’s employer would result in an unreasonable conflict of interest. For example, as a representative of Anheuser-Busch, the firm would have to minimize the business’ liability and mitigate the damages to reach the best interests of its client. However, in representing the employer, and pursuant to the Notice of Lien, the firm would represent its client’s best interests by maximizing Anheuser-Busch’s liability and damages.

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