The Florida Bar

May 28, 1968

An attorney holding settlement funds or judgment proceeds for a client who previously assigned a portion thereof to a physician and thereafter repudiated the assignment should institute an appropriate interpleader action.

Canon: 11

Chairman MacDonald stated the opinion of the committee:

A member of The Florida Bar advises as follows:

In a plaintiff's personal injury case, after obtaining settlement or collecting the proceeds of a judgment, the client, who has previously executed a medical assignment form for the payment of unpaid medical bills for medical services incurred in connection with injuries sustained in an accident, specifically withdraws authority from the attorney to retain a portion of the proceeds for the purpose of paying the medical bills.

In accordance with instructions of the client, after payment of the attorney's fees and legal costs, the proceeds are distributed to the client. The medical bills are not paid by the client. The doctor then makes demand upon the attorney for payment of his bill.

Is the attorney personally obligated to pay the doctor's bill? In the face of a withdrawal of the authority to pay the unpaid medical bills, is the attorney at liberty to withhold from the client's proceeds a sum sufficient to pay the doctor's bill and is he at liberty to, in fact, make said payment in the face of the client's instructions?

The first question as to whether the attorney is personally obligated to pay the physician is, of course, one of law and is beyond the jurisdiction of this Committee.

With reference to the second question, which in effect seeks instruction as to the ethical course of conduct to be followed when the client withdraws authority to pay the physician while the attorney is holding the funds of this settlement, an ethical question within our jurisdiction is presented. It is our belief that a lawyer confronted with this dilemma should initially endeavor to assist his client and the physician in effecting a compromise. Failing at this effort, it is our belief that the lawyer should institute an interpleader action in a court of competent jurisdiction naming his client and the physician as defendants. Naturally it would not be necessary for the interpleader to involve any portion of the settlement funds in excess of the demands of the physician.

Many bar associations and medical societies have resolved problems of this type by adopting voluntary codes setting forth guidelines to be followed by their members in resolving such situations.

We emphasize that this opinion does not consider a situation in which the debts of the physician arise from a contract effectuated between the physician and the attorney.

[Revised: 08-24-2011]