Aggregate Settlements And Attorney Liability: The Evolving Landscape

Over the past several decades, attorneys involved in mass tort settlements, especially those representing the plaintiffs, have faced an increasing number of large-dollar liability claims centered on the aggregate settlement rule; that is, the state equivalents to Rule 1.8(g) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”).During this period, courts have held that fee forfeiture, potentially totaling millions of dollars, is an appropriate remedy for violations of the aggregate settlement rule (“the Rule”), even in the absence of any demonstrated economic harm to the client. At the same time, courts and other authoritative bodies have expressed a variety of often conflicting views regarding the obligations that the Rule imposes on attorneys and when the Rule applies, resulting in much uncertainty and little guidance for attorneys.

This Article offers both positive and normative clarification. It provides a thick description of the current interpretations of the aggregate settlement rule in order to identify the specific areas of authorities’ disagreement. It goes on to offer a normative theory of the Rule and its purpose, which could usefully mitigate the current interpretive confusion regarding which settlements are “aggregate settlements” and what client disclosures are mandated by the Rule.

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