Argument Report: Illinois Supreme Court Likely to Find Wrongful Death Lawyer Owes Duty to Next of Kin

Based upon the especially heavy questioning directed at the appellant during the recent oral argument in Estate of Powell v. John C. Wunsch, P.C., the Illinois Supreme Court seems to be contemplating holding that counsel who brings a wrongful death action owes a duty of care not only to the administrator or administratrix of the estate, but also to the next of kin. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinions in Estate of Powell is here.

The plaintiff in Estate of Powell was adjudicated disabled in 1997.  The plaintiff’s father died two years later, and his mother retained the defendants to bring a wrongful death action. The action was settled in two steps in 2005 – first, a $15,000 settlement with three defendants, split between the plaintiff, his mother and sister; and second, a $350,000 settlement which the mother and the plaintiff split equally, with the sister waiving her share. By 2008, a dispute had arisen between the plaintiff’s sister and his mother, who was plaintiff’s guardian, about whether the mother was still capable of caring for plaintiff, and whether his share of settlements was being expended towards his care. Plaintiff’s sister was substituted as his guardian in 2009. She then sued the defendants for malpractice. Plaintiff’s theory was that the defendants had failed to ensure that plaintiff’s share of the settlements was supervised by the probate court pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, and plaintiff had accordingly lost access to the funds. The trial court dismissed, finding that the defendants owed the plaintiff no duty of care, since it was his mother who had brought the action as administratrix of the estate, not the plaintiff himself. The Court of Appeal reversed in part, finding that a duty of care was owed, and that plaintiff had stated a claim for relief pursuant to the second settlement.

Counsel for the first group of defendants began the argument, noting that the majority of jurisdictions have declined to extend an attorney’s duty of care beyond the person administering the deceased’s estate to unnamed and sometimes unknown heirs. Justice Thomas asked how the Court should get around the statute and case law stating that wrongful death actions are brought for the benefit of next of kin as the real parties in interest. Counsel responded that extending the duty to heirs carried with it considerable risk of creating conflicts between a single beneficiary’s best interest and that of the estate. Justice Karmeier asked whether there was any dispute between the heirs in the case at bar, and counsel responded that matters had never reached that point. Justice Karmeier asked whether the attorney has a duty to ensure that a recovery is properly paid out, and counsel answered no. Justice Burke suggested that the Court had previously found a fiduciary duty to next of kin in DeLuna v. BurciagaCounsel disagreed, arguing that DeLuna had merely addressed the duty to beneficiaries. Justice Thomas again pointed out that previous cases had said that next of kin are the real parties in interest, and they are statutorily prohibited from representing their own interest. Isn’t this a textbook example of attorneys being hired to represent a third party? Counsel disagreed, arguing that if an attorney is representing the administratrix, duties flow only to her. To extend those duties across the board to all possible beneficiaries creates a real risk of conflicts of interest – counsel pointed, for example, to the need to advise plaintiff’s sister about her eventual waiver of any interest in the second settlement. Justice Thomas pointed out that one could hold that the counsel for the estate owed a duty to advise beneficiaries to get their own attorneys. Counsel responded that no across-the-board duty was justified, and briefly concluded by arguing that plaintiff had failed to establish proximate causation as well.

Counsel for the second group of defendants followed. He addressed the DeLuna issue, stating that his firm had represented the defendant, and the case related to statute of repose, not duty. Counsel stated that he didn’t believe DeLuna was wrongly decided, it was simply distinguishable. Counsel then turned to Justice Thomas’ question about heirs’ status as the real party in interest, arguing that while next of kin are the intended beneficiaries of a wrongful death action, there is too much potential for conflict involved in holding that counsel owes them a duty of care. Justice Thomas asked whether there was a duty to investigate if knowledge came to the attorney’s attention suggesting a possible conflict between the estate and the next of kin. Counsel responded that there was no duty to investigate a mere possibility of a conflict. Counsel argued that the system only works if obtaining a recovery is kept separate from the issue of distributing it to next of kin. The heirs’ remedy is against a person who distributed the money wrongfully, not against the attorney.

Counsel for the plaintiff began by commenting that it was “telling” that the defendants didn’t perceive a conflict until suit was filed; at no time did they advise the plaintiff or his sister of any possible conflict. Chief Justice Garman asked counsel to describe the scope of the defendant’s duty. Counsel answered that the duty was to represent the estate in connection with the claim, and at the time of distribution, should a conflict arise, to describe the conflict to beneficiaries, and advise them to seek separate counsel. The Chief Justice asked about minors, and counsel answered that for such beneficiaries, a minor’s estate must be opened in the probate division. Chief Justice Garman asked whether in plaintiff’s view there was always a potential for conflict, and counsel said yes; the Chief then suggested that counsel will always be advising beneficiaries to seek their own attorneys. Justice Thomas asked whether the plaintiff was arguing that the defendants should have been aware that the plaintiff’s mother was wrongfully expending funds from the plaintiff’s part of the settlement. Counsel answered that if the matter had been properly handled through a probate estate, there would have been no opportunity to misappropriate anything. Justice Karmeier asked counsel how he responded to the defendant’s contention that its duties were fully satisfied once the recovery was properly paid to the guardian. Counsel responded that in the case of a disabled person, payment to a plenary guardian was not sufficient; a probate estate must be opened so that the court can supervise the settlement. Justice Karmeier asked whether another estate and another guardian was needed; counsel answered that it could be the same guardian, but the guardian would be required to post a bond. Justice Karmeier asked whether the attorney has an obligation to confirm that the guardian has a bond. Counsel answered that that’s what the probate court does. Counsel briefly concluded by arguing that proximate causation was adequately pled by the allegations that the mother would have had no opportunity to misappropriate funds if the settlement had been properly handled.

Counsel for the first defendants group began her rebuttal by explaining that defendants hadn’t addressed any conflict because, as the law then stood, there wasn’t one. Justice Theis asked how the Wrongful Death Act and the Probate Act fit together in this instance. Counsel answered that the defendant’s duty was to the administratrix. The trial judge was advised of the plaintiff’s disability. As for the interplay between the Acts, counsel answered that the only workable solution was to find that the lawyer’s duty was to the estate only. Justice Theis asked whether there was a duty to consider the Probate Act and the Rules of Court re distribution of the settlement. Counsel answered that such a duty was met here. Justice Theis asked counsel whether she was conceding that there is a duty to follow the Probate Act and the Rules of Court, and counsel agreed that defendants had a duty to follow the law. Justice Burke asked whether there was a probate action, and counsel said that there was not after the settlement. Counsel argued that the plenary guardian was responsible for the plaintiff’s needs, but Justice Burke said she did not have responsibility for the plaintiff’s money. Counsel concluded by once again arguing that there was no basis for believing that any misappropriation would have been prevented if the settlements had been distributed differently.

Counsel for the second group of defendants began by addressing Justice Theis’ earlier question about duty. He argued that there is certainly a duty, but the question is to whom. If the Local Rules or the Wrongful Death Act were not followed, then it’s the administrator who has a cause of action against the attorney. Justice Thomas asked whether there was no duty to open a probate estate because the plaintiff already had a guardian – or is there never a duty?  Counsel responded that there is a duty to the administrator, nothing more. Justice Thomas wondered whether counsel’s position was contrary to rule, but counsel responded that the rules don’t create a duty. Justice Thomas pointed out that attorneys were opening up probate estates all the time. Counsel answered that only Cook County bifurcates the process – in other places, the same judge handles everything. Justice Thomas asked whether counsel had a duty to tell an administratrix that a probate estate was needed.   Counsel answered that if so, it was only owed to the administratrix. Counsel responded that that wasn’t what was pled here. Any duty has to be uniform in all cases, otherwise attorneys don’t know how to handle potential conflicts. Justice Theis pointed out that this wasn’t just any kind of conflict, the case involved specifically a disabled adult – and there’s a statutory procedure for dealing with that sort of conflict. Counsel responded again that if there is a mistake in distributing the recovery, it’s the administratrix’s cause of action. Thus, the wrong party was suing.

We expect Estate of Powell to be decided in three to four months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by tracie7779.

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