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If Your Client Dies Mid-Litigation, Should You Tell the Court?

Close-up Of Male Judge In Front Of Mallet Holding Documents
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 24, 2019

Losing clients can be tough, especially if they die. How far you go after that may depend on your practice.

Probate lawyers, of course, do it all the time. A plaintiff's attorney may continue litigating a wrongful death case for years.

But if your client is a witness and dies mid-litigation, you have a duty to inform the court without delay. Some lawyers, however, don't get that math.

One Year = 30 Days

In California, one attorney learned his lesson the hard way. He litigated a civil case for more than a year after learning his client had died, but didn't tell the court. The cost of his ethical education? A 30-day suspension.

The case started in 2011 with a fire. Alfeo and Leann Mattei owned two commercial properties, and rented them to an antique shop and a storage facility. A fired started at the storage facility, and spread to the antique store.

The antique operators sued the landlords, and a jury found they were negligent. The appeals court reversed and sent the case back for further proceedings. When trial began again, Alfeo Mattei was not there.

Steven Pabros knew his client was dead, but did not inform the court. Opposing counsel found out by searching the internet over a lunch break, then filed a motion for sanctions against Pabros. The judge found the violation "particularly egregious" and ordered him to pay $31,160 in sanctions to the plaintiffs.

Duty to Notify

Pabros didn't help his case by failing to report the sanctions order to the bar. Of course, the discipline authorities found out anyway.

The State Bar Court said he violated Sonoma County Local Rule 4.1(A), which requires attorneys to notify the court when a party to a case dies. The court said Pabros also violated rules against the suppression of evidence.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs won a motion for summary judgment in the case. An appeal is pending, but Pabros won't be working on it -- or any other cases -- for about 30 days.

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