• Law Firm Cannot Be Directly Liable for Malpractice and Can Only Be Vicariously Liable if one of its Principals or Associates is Liable
  • September 10, 2009
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Chicago Office
  • National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA v. Wuerth, ___N.E.2d___, 2009 WL 2341993 (Ohio 2009)

    Brief Summary
    Under Ohio law, a law firm cannot be directly liable for malpractice and can only be vicariously liable if one or more of its attorneys is liable for malpractice.

    Complete Summary
    National Union Fire Insurance Company (“National Union”) retained law firm Lane Alton & Horst, L.L.C. (“Lane Alton”) to represent several of National Union insureds. Lane Alton assigned the case to Richard Wuerth. Wuerth had to be replaced midway through litigation due to a health issue. After Lane Alton lost the lawsuit, National Union sued both Wuerth and Lane Alton for legal malpractice. The district court dismissed Wuerth, but not Lane Alton, on statute of limitations grounds.

    In light of Wuerth’s dismissal, however, the district court then dismissed the vicarious liability claim against Lane Alton. The district court further held that Lane Alton could not be directly liable for legal malpractice and therefore granted summary judgment to the defendants. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit certified two issues to the Ohio Supreme Court regarding the potential malpractice liability of law firms: whether a law firm may be directly liable for malpractice, and under what circumstances a law firm may be vicariously liable for malpractice.

    The Ohio Supreme Court first held that under Ohio law, law firms cannot be held directly liable for malpractice. The court drew from precedent in the area of medical malpractice in determining that professional malpractice claims apply to individual professionals rather than entities. The court noted that only individuals are capable of being admitted to practice law in Ohio and thus only individuals can have direct liability for legal malpractice.

    The court then held that under Ohio law, a law firm cannot be vicariously liable for malpractice “when no individual attorneys are liable or have been named.” 2009 WL 2341993 at * 5. The court adopted this holding based on principles of agency law.

    Significance of Opinion
    This opinion clarifies when and how a law firm may be liable for malpractice in Ohio. At least in Ohio: “A law firm may be vicariously liable for legal malpractice only when one or more of its principals or associates are liable for legal malpractice.” Id. at * 6. It remains to be seen whether, or to what extent, this case will cause plaintiffs’ legal malpractice lawyers in Ohio or other jurisdictions to seek to name all potentially involved lawyers as individual defendants in addition to naming their law firms.