Maryland Court of Appeals Holds That Co-Counsel Owes No Tort Duty to Referring Counsel

In Blondell v. Littlepage, No. 16, Sept. Term, 2008 (Md. March 30, 2009), the Court held that a plaintiffs' co-counsel, who advised the clients to settle the medical malpractice claim, owed no tort duty to referring counsel. After the settlement, the referring counsel sued co-counsel, asserting negligence, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional interference with contract, and breach of contract. Referring counsel alleged that co-counsel had improperly advised the client that there was a meritorious limitations defense in the malpractice action, that referring counsel had delayed in filing suit, and that the client might have a claim against the referring attorney.

The Circuit Court granted summary judgment to the co-counsel on all counts, concluding that co-counsel owed no tort duty to referring counsel, that co-counsel fulfilled her contractual duty under the fee agreement, and that co-counsel as a matter of law could not have interfered with the contract between the plaintiffs and referring counsel because co-counsel was a party to the agreement.

The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed. Although referring counsel did not style his suit as an attorney malpractice action, the Court found that the same policy considerations underlying the strict privity requirement in a legal malpractice case, apply with equal force here. The Court reasoned that if this type of claim were allowed, the resulting expansion of potential tort claims by non-clients would have a potential effect on an attorney's duty of loyalty to the client. An attorney's preoccupation or concern with potential negligence claims by third parties might result in a diminution in the quality of legal services received by the client as the attorney might weight the client's interests against the attorney's fear of liability to a third party.