Law School Case Brief
Air Turbine Tech., Inc. v. Quarles & Brady, LLC - 165 So. 3d 816 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2015)
Good faith tactical decisions are generally not actionable under the rule of judgmental immunity. Attorneys cannot be placed in the position of having to accept direction from clients on intricate interpretations of the correct or current state of the law.
Appellant Air Turbine entered into a private brand agreement with Atlas Copco Tools AB, which granted Atlas Copco a license to sell one of Air Turbine's tools throughout the world, except for the United States and Canada. In return, Atlas Copco agreed not to disclose the technology covered by Air Turbine's patents. Air Turbine terminated the private brand agreement in 1993. Atlas Copco then entered into an agreement with another company to sell the tool under Atlas Copco's name. Air Turbine became aware of this product and believed it to be similar to the tool that was the subject of its private brand agreement with Atlas Copco. In 2001, Air Turbine hired law firm Quarles & Brady and attorney Horn to initiate litigation against Atlas Copco. The firm took the case on a contingency fee basis. The firm filed suit against Atlas Copco asserting six counts: patent infringement, violation of the Lanham Act, breach of contract, fraud, breach of confidential relationship, and common law unfair competition. The complaint sought over $50 million in damages, including punitive damages. The complaint also contained a claim for attorney's fees. While the case was ongoing, Atlas offered a $500,000 settlement offer, which was denied by Air Turbine based on the advice of their counsel. The federal district court granted summary judgment in Atlas Copco's favor on a majority of Air Turbine's claims. Atlas Copco then moved for recovery of $4.7 million in attorney's fees and approximately $850,000 in costs, which was denied by the court. Because of this, Air Turbine filed suit against appellees law firm and the handling partner Horn for legal malpractice. Central to the main claims was Horn's "repeated advice that Air Turbine was not at risk of exposure to Atlas Copco's attorney's fees." It was the advice that primarily influenced Air Turbine's rejection of the $500,000 settlement offer. The trial court issued a summary judgment based on judgmental immunity. The case was appealed.
In a legal malpractice lawsuit, was it proper for the court to issue summary judgment in favor of the law firm and partner?
The Court of Appeal of Florida affirmed the judgment. The Court held that there was no legal malpractice when appellees law firm and partner advised appellant Air Turbine that it did not face a significant risk of exposure to attorney's fees because, under the great weight of Florida law, a contract that provided for recovery of only legal "costs" and "expenses" did not allow for recovery of attorney's fees. To the extent that any of the challenged conduct could be seen as fairly debatable, appellees' advice was protected by judgmental immunity. The partner reasonably believed there was no exposure to attorney's fees and subsequent research confirmed his belief. The partner's decision to not call a fee expert in federal court, where such an expert was not required, was the essence of a good faith tactical decision that was protected by judgmental immunity.
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