You take the good, you take the bad…

You take them both and there you have … the news about Tenn. Formal Ethics Opinion 2019-F-167 (draft).

First, the good. I cannot give sincere and strong enough kudos to the Tennessee BPR for implementing a new policy to release draft Formal Ethics Opinions to the public for comment before deciding to actually adopt and issue them. That is a wonderful development for Tennessee lawyers and should ultimately lead to Tennessee having some of the best and most helpful ethics opinions of any state in the nation.

Now, the bad. 2019-F-167 in draft form ain’t one. This proposed FEO is yet another one seeking to weigh in on the topic of what kinds of provisions in settlement agreements might run afoul of a lawyer’s obligations under RPC 5.6 not to agree to restrictions on their practice as part of resolving a client matter. This time the underlying question is a provision in the settlement of an automobile products liability case that would require destruction of the allegedly defective vehicle.

The summary of the BPR’s conclusion is: “It is improper for an attorney to propose or accept a provision in a settlement agreement, in a products liability case, that requires destruction of the subject vehicle alleged to be defective if that action will restrict the attorney’s representation of other clients.”

Working from high-level problems first all the way down to problems at the level of details, here (for what it is worth) is what is wrong with this draft opinion:

  • The original intention of the rule, RPC 5.6, is to prevent an attorney from being put in a position where they have to agree that they will never again be adverse to someone as a condition for settling a particular client’s case. That is a policy decision made to try to protect the public’s general right to counsel despite the fact that the ethics rules (RPC 1.2) expressly provide that whether or not to settle a case is, and has to be, the ultimate decision of the client and not the lawyer. Every step down paths that are more remote from the original purpose of the restriction is one more step to making the rule tilt in the wrong direction of putting the lawyer’s future interests ahead of the current client’s right to settle their case.
  • Opinions that interpret a rule that says ” don’t do X” but that offer a conclusion of this other thing Y is wrong if Y also manages to “do X” aren’t all that helpful unless you provide really insightful guidance about when something would or would not also manage to “do X.” If you cannot articulate what things would or would not in a way that is, as a practical matter, helpful, then maybe you shouldn’t be issuing an opinion on the question.
  • The opinion goes to great lengths to explain how important the future possession of an arguably defective automobile is for the lawyer/firm making the inquiry and, in so doing, makes the following assertion as if it was the gospel truth: “The most compelling evidence when establishing the existence of a defect in a vehicle is the existence of other similar incidents.” But, it’s not. I’m not an expert in products liability litigation, though I have handled some cases over the years (admittedly, always on the defense side). If I need to prove that a particular vehicle that caused some particular person harm, then I need to prove that particular vehicle was defective. I don’t have to prove that any other vehicle at any other time was defective. Just that one. But also… that one. If I prove that other vehicles in other situations were defective and caused harm to other people, that isn’t actually going to correlate in any direct fashion to whether this particular vehicle that caused this particular harm was defective.
  • After doing that, the opinion explains a lot about the ways that the firm goes about purchasing the vehicle to have possession of it and talks about how “[i]t is the firm’s practice at the end of the case to request from the client that the firm be allowed to retain ownership and possession of the vehicle.” It does not, at any point in the opinion, provide any guidance on whether the firm has to comply with RPC 1.8(a) – business transaction with a client – in doing so; nor does it discuss whether such a policy on that firm’s part is a problem under RPC 1.8(i) – not acquiring a proprietary interest in a cause of action or subject matter of litigation that the lawyer is handling for a client.
  • The opinion does contain a discussion of RPC 3.4(a) and concerns of spoliation but makes another statement as if it were gospel truth that is actually simply not even close to 100% correct: “Clearly, in the context of a product liability case, the alleged defective product is key evidence in other current or subsequent cases of a similar defect.” It is bordering on irresponsible to put the imprimatur of the BPR on a position that the destruction of a particular physical piece of evidence at the conclusion of a particular piece of litigation would clearly put a lawyer at risk of being accused of spoliation of evidence in some future piece of litigation that does not yet even exist.
  • The opinion includes a discussion about the firm’s right to retain file materials and how that is important in terms of the ability to defend themselves in a subsequent legal malpractice action. That is a good issue to address. However, the sentence: “Without the ability to review the most important piece of evidence in the underlying products liability suit, the law firm would be left essentially defenseless if a former client brought a professional malpractice claim.” is another one of those bridge-too-far moments. The firm will have and retain copies of its expert reports from inspections of the vehicle and can even have and retain copious photographic and video evidence of the vehicle. There are many ways that it can satisfy its need to protect itself without having to have possession of the actual vehicle.
  • The opinion then ends with the BPR taking it upon itself to declare that the “ability for plaintiffs’ firms to act as industry watchdogs is both good public policy and was specifically addressed as a vested responsibility during Congress’s enactment of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. It doesn’t seem wise to me for the BPR to be in the business of taking positions on public policy issues that are not absolutely necessary in order to provide guidance under the ethics rules. This doesn’t seem like that kind of situation, but, as the opinion cross-references, the BPR already did that with this exact same language in Formal Ethics Op. 2018-F-166, so the horse is already out of that particular barn.

So, I would say that this one needs to go back into the shop for some much needed repairs if not taken off the street altogether.

Speaking of which, the opinion’s reference to the firm’s willingness to assure the settling defendant that the vehicle will not be placed back on the road is actually the key point of all of this. The only real reason – to my knowledge – that a defendant ever seeks to include a destruction provision in settlement is a matter of safety in terms of making certain that the same vehicle does not go back in use to put anyone else at risk of harm and, of course, to put the defendant at risk of not having to get sued again over the same defective item injuring a different person. If the assurance that is offered to be provided by the firm can be done in a manner that is actually enforceable, then that should always likely suffice to resolve the situation. An re-drafted opinion that puts more emphasis on that and that spots other issues that could create problems with an eye toward getting to the right practical result would certainly seem more like helpful guidance than this draft.

The deadline for submitting public comments to the BPR on this opinion, should you be so inclined, is April 10, 2019. The document immediately below provides instructions on how you can do that.

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