The same personal injury lawyer can usually represent two (or more) people who were injured in the same accident, unless the lawyer might have a conflict of interest in representing both of those people, which means there could be ethical issues involved. Let's look at conflicts of interest in the context of this kind of dual representation in a personal injury case.
What is a Conflict of Interest?
In the practice of law, one of the most common ways that a "conflict of interest" can arise is when a lawyer, by agreeing to represent one client, might harm the interests of another of his or her clients. When a lawyer is representing two or people injured in the same accident, a conflict of interest might arise if one of those people might be deemed at fault, even partially, for the underlying accident (think of a car accident as one example of when this might be possible). A second kind of conflict of interest might arise if there is a limited amount of proceeds available to pay the claims of the two (or more) clients who were in the accident.
Let's dive a little deeper into these two types of conflict of interest.
When One Client Might Be At Fault
Let’s say you and your friend are both passengers in a car that is hit by someone else. That’s an easy case. Both of you have potential claims against the driver of the car that you were in, and against the driver of the other car, and neither of you can be considered at fault. There's no issue with having the same lawyer represent both of you.
Now let’s say you are driving, and your friend is a passenger in your car, which is hit by someone else. If, for example, your car is motionless at a red light and you are rear ended, that’s still not problematic for the lawyer from an ethical standpoint. The accident is almost certainly the other car’s fault, so you can have the same lawyer.
But what if you collide at an intersection? Now the crash is possibly your fault. In that situation, you would have a claim only against the other driver, but your friend would have a claim not only against the other driver, but also potentially against you, depending on what the evidence shows about the cause of the crash. So it would likely be considered unethical for a lawyer to represent both you and your friend. Theoretically, your friend could sign a waiver of any claim against you, and you both could sign waivers of any conflict of interest, but that is probably pushing it. (More Personal Injury Claim Do's and Don'ts.) Most lawyers would tell the two friends to get separate lawyers.
When Limited Proceeds Are Available
This situation often arises when the defendant, who is clearly at fault, has a limited amount of insurance coverage. Let’s say that you are driving and two of your friends are passengers. You are waiting at a red light when you get rear-ended pretty hard. It is obviously the other driver’s fault. All three of you suffer significant injuries, such that each of your cases might be worth $50,000, but the defendant only has $50,000 in car insurance coverage. What happens in this situation?
Here, the conflict of interest is that each of the injured people wants as much as he or she can get from the limited insurance policy, to cover their damages. Theoretically, each of the plaintiffs could just split the $50,000 policy equally or in some other agreed upon manner. And if the plaintiffs do in fact agree on how the policy should be split, then there is likely no conflict of interest.
But what if they don’t want to split the insurance proceeds equally? In that situation, it would be impossible for the same lawyer to continue representing all three of the injured people. The lawyer would have to withdraw from the case, and all three people would have to find new lawyers.