Natl. Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA v. Wuerth, 122 Ohio St.3d 594, 2009-Ohio-3601

Underlying Action: Insurance (Ohio)

Student Contributor: Candice L. Deaner

Facts: The plaintiff retained a law firm’s partner, Wuerth, to defend them against a lawsuit. During the trial, Wuerth informed partners and the trial judge that he was sick and subsequently was taken to the hospital. His doctor advised the court that Wuerth was not capable of continuing with the trial. His firm filed an unsuccessful motion for a mistrial, then assigned attorneys to complete the trial. Plaintiff lost the trial and filed suit claiming that Wuerth had committed legal malpractice, that his firm was vicariously liable for Wuerth’s malpractice, and that the firm itself committed malpractice. While Plaintiff alleged wrongful acts by the firm, Wuerth was the only individual named as a defendant in the complaint. On a motion for summary judgment, the district court dismissed Wuerth from the action because Plaintiff had filed its complaint after the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations under Ohio law. Because the statute barred them against Wuerth, the district court also dismissed claims for vicarious liability against firm. Finally, the district court determined that the firm cannot be held directly liable for legal malpractice because it is not an attorney and does not practice law and Plaintiff appealed.

Issue: Can a legal malpractice claim be maintained directly against a law firm when all of the relevant employees have either been dismissed from the lawsuit or were never sued in the first instance?

The Ruling: The Supreme Court of Ohio held a law firm is vicariously liable only when one or more of its principals or associates are liable for legal malpractice:

 “Although a party injured by an agent may sue the principal, the agent, or both, a principal is vicariously liable only when an agent could be held directly liable the liability for the tortuous conduct flows through the agent by virtue of the agency relationship to the principal. If there is no liability assigned to the agent, it logically follows that there can be no liability imposed upon the principal for the agent’s actions.”

The Lesson: A law firm as an entity does not engage in the practice of law and therefore cannot commit legal malpractice directly. A law firm cannot be vicariously liable for legal malpractice unless one of its principals or associate attorneys is found liable for malpractice.