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Attorney-Client Confidentiality

  • Dave Brown, Esquire
  • 10/19/2020

Many years ago, a distraught man made an emergency appointment for a consultation with a prominent criminal defense lawyer in central Pennsylvania. The man, sweating profusely, sat across from the lawyer at his desk and confided he had killed his wife earlier in the day. The lawyer was floored and allowed the man to tell his story. “We had been arguing a lot lately, and I lost my temper and killed her.” He paused for a moment and then added, “Her body is in the trunk of my car. Do you want to see it?”

The lawyer was accustomed to clients telling him that they had not committed crimes. Here was a man openly confessing to the murder of his wife. The lawyer was skeptical but agreed to take the elevator downstairs with the man and walk to his car in the parking lot. His car was parked at one end, away from other vehicles. The man propped open the trunk slightly, and the lawyer peered in and was appalled to see the body of a dead woman.

The lawyer could not defend the man if he is arrested and argue that he did not commit the murder because he knew the man was guilty. After the man closed the trunk, the lawyer matter-of-factly gave him the only advice he could think of. “It would not be in your best interest to be caught with that body.”

Even though the man confessed to murdering his wife, all communications, including the showing of the body, were protected by attorney-client confidentiality, also known as the attorney-client privilege. As despicable as the man’s actions were, the man could not turn around and call the police, nor could he tell anybody else what he learned that day. The man could have hired the lawyer to try to work out a plea deal to a lesser charge, but even if he did not, the communications were protected by attorney-client confidentiality.

This example – grisly as it is – illustrates how strong confidentiality is between an attorney and a client. The purpose of the attorney-client privilege is to encourage clients to make completely frank disclosures to their attorneys who can then provide candid advice and zealous representation.

What does this mean if you injure yourself at work? If you have a consultation with a workers’ compensation lawyer, even if you decide not to hire the lawyer, everything that you say during the consultation – with limited exceptions, one of which is discussed below — must be kept confidential by the lawyer as it is protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Much like the criminal lawyer could not go into court and assert that the man was not guilty, we cannot pursue a workers’ comp. claim on behalf of someone if we know the claim is fraudulent. For example, if a client told one of our lawyers that he hurt his knee playing pick-up basketball, but because he didn’t have health insurance, he told his boss that the injury happened when he was bending down at work to lift up a box. We could not file a claim for workers’ comp. benefits because it would be based on false information. In fact, we would strongly discourage the person from pursuing a workers’ comp. claim because they could get themselves in trouble. But this person would still be afforded protection under the attorney-client privilege as we could not call up the person’s employer and tell them that its employee wants to pursue a fraudulent workers’ comp. claim.

Another example: Pennsylvania workers’ comp. law is strict that if a person is out of work due to a work injury and is collecting or seeking workers’ comp. benefits, any wages must be reported to the employer and insurance company even if the wages are less than the person was making at the time of their injury. Let’s say we are representing a client in a claim for workers’ comp. benefits who calls and says, “I just started a bartending job under the table – don’t tell the insurance company.” The rules of ethics require that we disclose this to the insurance company (who is usually represented by a lawyer). That is not to say, though, that a claimant is unable to work and earn money while waiting for their workers’ comp. claim to be decided. It’s just that if the Workers’ Compensation Judge awards the person benefits, the insurance company can take a credit on any wages earned.

At Pearson Koutcher Law, we pride ourselves not only on knowing workers’ comp. law backwards and forwards but by maintaining strong lines of communication with our clients from the time of the first consultation. We are always available to talk on the phone or exchange texts and emails with our clients. Before the pandemic – and when it finally ends – we are available for in-person meetings at clients’ homes and our office. Please contact us if you have injured yourself at work, regardless of where you are in the process. Contact us if you just injured yourself or if you got hurt three months ago and your employer is pushing you to go back to work. We understand that that it’s stressful if you injure yourself and cannot work. We want to hear your entire story and zealously represent you from the beginning of your claim to the end.