Articles Posted in Proximate Causaction

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When you sue a lawyer for a breach of the standard of care, you must prove proximate causation. If the underlying matter, was a lawsuit, you must show that, but for the negligence, you would have won the case.

Here, the lawyer was hired to pursue a lawsuit for insurance coverage. The lawyer allegedly missed the deadline to file the case. However, there was no legal malpractice because the underlying case lacked merit. The underlying case claimed that the insurance company did not cover certain losses. The problem was that the policy language excluded those losses. Thus, if the clients had read the insurance policy, they would have known that there was no coverage. Because the coverage case had no merit, the lawyer’s failure to file the lawsuit on time was of no importance. The trial court granted summary judgment for the lawyer and the appellate court affirmed that judgment.

The opinion explains the failure of proof in this fashion:

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This case is interesting because it dismisses a legal malpractice claim because the expert did not reveal how the negligence of the attorney caused the injury of the plaintiff. The opinion does not shed as much light on the facts of the case as I would like it to. However, the opinion does explain that although plaintiff had an expert and the expert prepared a report, the expert did not sufficiently explain proximate causation. Proximate causation is a difficult concept for nonlawyers to understand. Indeed, sometimes lawyers do not understand it.

In sum, the expert report said the lawyer was negligent but it failed to explain why the negligence caused the bad result that the plaintiff received. The opinion, though it is based on Minnesota law, is consistent with the modern trend in the cases which requires expert reports to be more complete.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

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The Seventh Circuit has affirmed a decision to dismiss a legal malpractice complaint in which West Bend Insurance alleged that its former counsel committed legal malpractice in connection with the defense of a worker’s compensation claim. The claim set forth numerous deficiencies in the lawyer’s performance in the worker’s compensation case, including his unauthorized decision to admit liability. However, the complaint was dismissed because West Bend never explained why the alleged errors would have made a difference. Put another way, West Bend never alleged how the result would have been different in the absence of the alleged breaches of duty. Judge Ripple’s opinion sets forth the court’s reasoning on proximate causation in some detail and is worth quoting here:

There is no dispute that West Bend has described adequately the duty element in its malpractice claim. Nor is there any disagreement about the adequacy of West Bend’s narrative with respect to the alleged attorney conduct constituting a breach of that duty. In that respect, West Bend alleges that Mr. Schumacher, having assumed responsibility for the defense of the claim, failed to prepare adequately for the hearing, revealed inappropriately the defense theory of the case to Marzano’s counsel, and then, without authorization, conceded liability for Marzano’s workers’ compensation claim.[15]

The allegations with respect to causation and damages present, however, significant concerns. At the outset, we note that the treatment by the Second Amended Complaint of the underlying workers’ compensation claim, which, as we have explained, is central to an assessment of causation and damages, is markedly different from the treatment of Mr. Schumacher’s alleged litigation conduct. While the complaint describes the conduct in some detail, it describes the underlying workers’ compensation claim in rather summary fashion. Specifically, while the complaint identifies the injured party as John Marzano, it tells us nothing about his claimed injury or his claim against his employer. Instead, it summarily states that “[p]rior to August 2006, there existed certain factual defenses and a medical causation defense to the Marzano claim.”[16]

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This case, Fox v. Seiden, has already made two trips to the Illinois Appellate Court. It is interesting because it is the rare case in which the court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The underlying case was captioned Multiut Corp. v. Draiman. The current case was brought on behalf of Miriam Draiman, one of the defendants in the Multiut case. In 2001, the court found that Draiman’s husband had engaged in deceptive trade practices and assessed attorney fees against “the defendants.” Plaintiff sought fees of $1,317,026.85. There was a big problem with this finding in that Miriam Draiman was not found liable on the consumer fraud act count. Thus, the judge erred in awarding attorney fees against “the defendants.”

Seiden appeared for Miriam Draiman in the post-trial proceedings. The Appellate Court describes the alleged error as follows:

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This case illustrates an important difference in the law. In Pennsylvania, a party cannot sue for legal malpractice if that same party settled the underlying case, unless that party can prove that it was fraudulently induced into entering the settlement agreement.

In Kachmar, the plaintiff sued his former matrimonial lawyer on the ground that the lawyer failed to include a waiver of spousal support in a prenuptial agreement. Unfortunately, Kachmar settled the underlying divorce case, which meant that he could not bring a legal malpractice case.

Illinois does not follow this rule. In Illinois, a party which has settled the underlying case can sue for legal malpractice. Where a case is settled, it is often difficult to prove that but for the lawyer’s negligence, the party could have obtained a better result.

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This is an important issue for legal malpractice attorneys. Is a former criminal defendant required to show actual innocence before he can sue for legal malpractice? Most courts have answered this question with “Yes,” but some states are beginning to deviate from the doctrine. The Iowa Supreme Court held that actual innocence is not required to bring a malpractice suit and but that guilt/innocence determinations are relevant to proof of proximate causation.  In other words, you can’t show the lawyer’s actions were the proximate cause of the conviction if you were really guilty.

Regarding actions for malpractice by a criminal defendant, the Restatement concludes that “it is not necessary to prove that the convicted defendant was in fact innocent,” although it notes that “most jurisdictions addressing the issue have stricter rules.” Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 53 cmt. d, at 392 (Am. Law Inst. 2000) [hereinafter Restatement]. The Restatement adds,

As required by most jurisdictions addressing the issue, a convicted defendant 166*166 seeking damages for malpractice causing a conviction must have had that conviction set aside when process for that relief on the grounds asserted in the malpractice action is available.

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Proximate causation is often the issue that defeats a legal malpractice case. In this case, even though a law firm failed to timely appeal an interlocutory ruling, there was no malpractice because the ruling was correct. Thus, even if the appeal had been filed on time, the plaintiff would have lost the case anyway.

The underlying case was litigated in the courts of the State of Oregon. Here, the plaintiff hired a law firm to give an opinion on whether an adverse ruling in a case could be appealed. The law firm essentially said that the ruling was interlocutory and that no appeal could be taken until the entire case was completed. To complete the case the plaintiff dismissed its remaining claims and appealed. The appeal was, however, dismissed because it was not timely.

Plaintiff then sued the law firm alleging that the law firm gave incorrect advice on the appeal deadline. The trial court granted summary judgment for the law firm. It held that plaintiff could not establish proximate causation, that is, but for the negligence, plaintiff would have obtained a better result in the underlying lawsuit.

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The plaintiff, Cynthia O’Neal, brought a legal malpractice claim against her former lawyers. O’Neal, an owner of a restaurant chain that fell on hard times, alleged that her former lawyers had a conflict of interest when the represented her company and the opposing party in an assumption of a lease. The court rejected her claim on the grounds that she was unable to establish proximate causation.

In my experience, proximate causation can be difficult to prove. Lawyers make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes breach the duty of care. The plaintiff must tie the negligent act to the damages suffered by plaintiff and come up with a plausible theory as to how the lawyers made things worse and caused the damage.

One area where it is very difficult to prove proximate causation is a legal malpractice claim in the foreclosure setting. The lawyer who defends the foreclosure may miss a deadline or make a legal error. However, that lawyer did not cause the default and did not proximately cause any damages.

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This is a legal malpractice case from Mississippi where the plaintiff hired an attorney, Omar Nelson, to bring a wrongful death action against the makers of Plavix. The plaintiff alleged that she asked Nelson to handle the case when he was an associate with the law firm, Sweet and Freese. Nelson declined and recommended other counsel. Later, when Nelson left Sweet and Freese, he began working on the case again. Eventually, Nelson obtained a settlement of $280,000 for the plaintiff. The settlement was approved by the court.

Plaintiff’s legal malpractice theory was that Nelson had not obtained a sufficient settlement for the case and that other lawyers would have obtained more. This theory, without further evidence of negligence such as a failure to take discovery or obtain evidence, is very weak. It is almost entirely speculative. How are we to know why a different attorney would have obtained more money than the attorney who actually handled the case?

Plaintiff’s expert was Freese who testified that had he handled the case he would have obtained more money for the plaintiff.