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State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. K.A.W. - 575 So. 2d 630 (Fla. 1991)

Rule:

In conflict-of-interest cases, one seeking to disqualify opposing counsel is required to show that (1) an attorney-client relationship existed, thereby giving rise to an irrefutable presumption that confidences were disclosed during the relationship, and (2) the matter in which the law firm subsequently represented the interest adverse to the former client was the same or substantially related to the matter in which it represented the former client. This standard is based on the rule that provides that an attorney should preserve the confidences and secrets of a client

Facts:

David Wilkerson was driving a rental car in which his wife and infant daughter were passengers when it was struck by another car. The Wilkersons retained the law firm of Sheldon J. Schlesinger, P.A. (Schlesinger firm) to prosecute a personal injury case. When it appeared that Wilkerson might have been negligent, counsel stopped representing him in that matter, but continued to represent respondent wife and child on a new claim against Wilkerson, for which he waived immunity up to State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company’s (State Farm) limits of liability. Holding that this state of facts implicated the fair administration of justice, the court quashed the decision and ordered counsel disqualified.

Issue:

Could a law firm, which represented a former client, continue to represent the client's family in a negligence action against the former client for which the former client waived immunity up to the limits of State Farm’s liability coverage?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The court held first that despite Wilkerson’s waiver of any conflict, State Farm had standing to disqualify counsel. The court noted that claim was against Wilkerson in name only, and observed that the true targets were State Farm and their obligations to defend and indemnify Wilkerson. The court held that the strictures of Fla. Bar Rules 4-1.64-1.7, and 4-1.9 not only protected the client, but were fundamental to a fair adversary system. The court stated that counsel's prior representation of Wilkerson clearly impaired State Farm’s ability to defend the claim.

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