Nearly two years ago, the world was glued to their televisions as the news of Gabby Petito’s disappearance took over the media. What started as a cross-country road trip that Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, took together ended in Laundrie taking Petito’s life and later his own.
The parents of Gabby Petito are now suing Brian Laundrie’s parents for allegedly knowing that Brian had killed Gabby and did nothing about it. The Petito’s claim that the Laundrie’s lawyer issued a September 14, 2021, statement expressing hope that Petito would be found while the Laundrie’s already knew Petito had died. In December of 2022, Petito’s filed a motion to include the Laundrie’s lawyer, Steven Bertolino, as a defendant in the lawsuit.
While Bertolino awaits the final decision on his involvement, many have questioned if naming him and his clients as defendants creates a conflict of interest as well as an attorney-client privilege issue.
A lawyer can, of course, be named as a defendant in a case just like anyone else. However, in a case where an attorney is asked to defend themselves while their client does the same, the attorney may have little choice but to divulge confidential client information. This presents a significant risk to the attorney and his or her firm.
While Bertolino’s situation is more complicated than most, attorneys need to remember attorney-client privilege only goes so far. Generally, the attorney-client privilege rule ensures attorneys do not reveal confidential communications with their clients. The rule is in place to encourage a safe space for clients to speak honestly with their counsel. Exceptions include:
- If an attorney is aware their client is currently committing or intends to commit a crime, known as the crime-fraud exception.
- If an attorney is subpoenaed to disclose information.
- If a client waives the attorney-client privilege.
While the argument that Bertolino has an obligation to his client is valid, his position in this particular case could raise enough concern to warrant an attorney-client privilege expectation.
Professional Liability Insurance
When an attorney’s practices are called into question, or they are asked to appear in court, they will likely think about how their lawyer’s professional liability insurance (LPLI) policy can help them. An LPLI policy will help a law firm and its lawyers by providing indemnification if they are accused of malpractice. However, this does not extend to criminal, fraudulent or malicious acts. If Bertolino’s actions are found to be illegal, an LPLI policy would not be applicable.
It is common for lawyers to be sued. If a firm and its lawyers are practicing ethically, an LPLI policy is a valuable line of defense. In addition to securing an LPLI policy, law firms should employ a risk management plan to help hold the firm accountable and limit malpractice accusations. An insurance agent who specializes in insurance for legal professionals can be a great resource to develop a risk management plan and ensure the firm has an adequate LPLI policy in place.