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Indiana Legal Malpractice Case Illustrates Case-Within-A-Case Requirement

In a legal malpractice case, the plaintiff is required to prove a case-within-a-case or that had the lawyer met the standard of care the plaintiff would have won the case. The case here is Roumbos v. Vazanellis and Thiros & Stracci,  Case No. 45S03-1710-CT-635. decided by the Indiana Supreme court on April 12, 2018.

The client hired the lawyer to file a personal injury case, against a hospital. The plaintiff who was elderly had fallen when she went to visit her husband at the hospital. The lawyer allegedly failed to file with the limitations period. In the malpractice litigation against the lawyer, the lawyer defended the case on the ground that the plaintiff could not prove that her fall was proximately caused by the negligence of the hospital. The trial court granted summary judgment but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. It held that the plaintiff had introduced sufficient evidence that the hospital was negligent to proceed to trial.

The opinion is thoughtful and well-written and it does a great job of explaining how the proof of a case-within-a-case works.

A few relevant passages from the opinion are included here:

Neither side disputes that missing a filing deadline breaches the duty of care lawyers owe to clients. So this case is about the second prong: Would Plaintiff have won her claim against the hospital had the lawyer timely sued?…

The law firm invokes a defense the hospital would have asserted—that the hospital did not breach its duty under premises-liability law because Plaintiff’s fall was caused by a known or obvious condition: the wires and cords lying on the floor on which she allegedly tripped. We granted transfer to consider whether, as the Court of Appeals held, the landowner bears the burden on summary judgment to disprove that the invitee was distracted from or forgot about a known danger on the premises when the invitee made no such claim and designated no such evidence herself. But after oral argument, it is clear this issue is not squarely before us. Both parties now concede the invitee did not know of the tripping risk that she claims caused her fall. Although we have previously vacated grants of transfer when the factual premise for our grant proves false, we elect to decide this case on its merits.

We hold that Defendants, as movants on summary judgment, failed to negate the causation element of Plaintiff’s malpractice claim. Specifically, Defendants failed to establish, as a matter of law, that Plaintiff would not have succeeded in her premises-liability claim against the hospital. We reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment for Defendants and remand.

Anyone who wants to understand how malpractice liability works in a practical context should read this opinion. The malpractice case requires the plaintiff to prove that she would have won the underlying case. This means that the lawyer has to be familiar with the proof of a slip-and-fall case to win the legal malpractice case. Where the underlying case is even more complicated, think patent law, it can be very difficult to prove the underlying case.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.