September 7, 2007

Now That's A Tough One To Explain

Here's a forceful reminder to all attorneys to periodically stay in touch with their clients. (Second story on the link.)

Charles Riegel and his wife sued Medtronics, Inc. on a products liability suit involving a medical device made by Medtronics. The suit was originally filed in 1999. After trial, it was appealed, and Riegel lost the appeal. His attorneys filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the Court accepted the petition for cert. -- Riegel's case was going to be heard by the High Court! Exciting stuff, so the lawyer called his client.

Only to find out that his client had died in 2004.

Civil cases can certainly persist beyond the death of a plaintiff. No problem, it's just a motion and a form and badda-bing, badda-boom, you've swapped out the dead plaintiff for his estate, his executor, his heirs or trust beneficiaries, or whatever other title or form the law of your state happens to be for postmortem pursuit of premortem pleadings and proceedings. But the U.S. Supreme Court's rules state that this motion must be filed within six months of the plaintiff's death.

The lawyer's excuse was that most of his communication with his clients was through the mail (yes, many of us have clients like that) and the case was moving slowly (it was on petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, after all) and the clients had moved and not been diligent about reporting their new contact information (which happens quite frequently). So there was little to communicate until and unless the High Court acted in some way, and the best way to do it was the mail. I can understand that, really I can. If there's nothing to do on case "X," you have to focus on case "Y" that's pressing on your time and has imminent deadlines. It's easy to dash off a status letter to a client whose case is just sitting there with nothing for anyone to do, and not pick up the phone and call to chat about how nothing at all has happened, particularly if "nothing at all" is not good news.

But, it's a cautionary tale to all of us lawyers to periodically canvass our active case lists and talk to the clients.

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