Articles Posted in Proximate Causation

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The case, Nancy Setterquist v. Law Offices of Ted D. Billbe, P.C., N0. 18-35880, is an unpublished decision of the Ninth Circuit that raises important issues. The case is a divorce malpractice case. Setterquist alleged that her lawyer allowed the court to enter an erroneous order. Based on the text of that order, her ex-husband filed a post-decree claim against her for maintenance and was able to recover. The facts are not summarized well in the opinion, unfortunately, leaving me with questions about what happened and why it happened.

The defense strategy was to move to dismiss on the basis that Setterquist engaged a new lawyer post-decree. The defense argued in a motion to dismiss that successor counsel could have corrected the error made by Billbe and defeated ex-husband’s claims.

The district court dismissed the case on the basis that Setterquist could not allege proximate causation because she employed successor counsel.

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There are a number of issues that you should consider before you file a legal malpractice claim against a lawyer. Your lawyer should discuss these issues with you so that you understand how to proceed:

  1. Did the lawyer cause your harm or was it caused by someone or something else? You are required to prove that the lawyer was the proximate cause of the loss of your case. Consider whether you would have won the case absent whatever error you believe the lawyer made. Play Devil’s Advocate – even if the lawyer had done what he was supposed to do, would I have won the case? Often the answer to this question is “No” because the case could not be won under any circumstances.
  2. Am I prepared to waive the attorney-client privilege? When you sue your lawyer you are almost always deemed to have waived the attorney-client privilege. That privilege shields communications from you to the lawyer and from the lawyer to you. It allow you to seek legal advice without fear that your own words will come back to haunt you. But if you sue a lawyer, you waive the privilege. Consider carefully whether the waiver of the privilege is worth it to you.
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In this case, Eskridge v. Fletcher, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One, No. 78013-1-l, a medical doctor sued the lawyers who unsuccessfully represented him in his license revocation proceeding. The record indicated that there was substantial evidence that Dr. Eskridge had acted inappropriately towards other doctors and patients. As a result, the hospital revoked his admission privileges. After an internal review, Dr. Eskridge’s privileges were revoked. On the advice of the defendant lawyers, Eskridge elected not to appeal that determination.

The malpractice lawsuit alleged that, had the appeal been filed, it would have been successful and Eskridge would have retained his privileges.

The trial court disagreed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that he could not show by clear and convincing evidence (the standard used in the medical revocation proceeding) that, but for the error by the lawyer, he would have prevailed in his appeal. The discussion follows:

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Sometimes things get missed or lost in the shuffle when clients change lawyers. It is often difficult to get the new lawyer up to speed in time to get a case ready for dispositive motions or trial.  When I see that the client had numerous lawyers involved in a case, that is usually a good signal that the case cannot be won. Each lawyer will blame another lawyer and its tough for the plaintiff to recover. You can sue everybody, but you will be subject to motions to dismiss and separate defenses.

This is a legal malpractice case recognizing the successor counsel defense. Ryan was represented by the Simmons firm in certain litigation. It was undisputed that they withdrew before the statute of limitations on some of Ryan’s claims ran. Successor counsel appeared 13 weeks before the pleadings closed in the litigation. The court quotes the law, which is well-settled:

Our supreme court has acknowledged the rule that “[a]n attorney cannot be held liable for failing to file an action prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations if he ceased to represent the client and was replaced by other counsel before the statute ran on the client’s action.” Ruden v. Jenk, 543 N.W.2d 605, 612 (Iowa 1996) (quoting Steketee v. Lintz, Williams & Rothberg, 694 P.2d 1153, 1159 (Cal. 1985)). Other courts have further explained the effect of successor counsel in legal malpractice claims. See Norton v. Sperling Law Office, P.C., 437 F. Supp. 2d 398, 402-03 (D. Md. 2006). The actions of successor counsel may create “an intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation arising from the prior attorney’s negligence.” Id. at 402. In order to rely on this rule, the prior attorney must show “a sufficiently long time gap between the severing of the attorney-client relationship and the lapse of the statute of limitations.” Id. at 403. “Courts have not set a minimum baseline for what constitutes `sufficient time,’ although one court has deemed as little as thirty days sufficient.” Id. (citing Sherotov v. Capoccia, 555 N.Y.S.2d 918 (App. Div. 1990)); but see id. at 403 (finding ten weeks was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a personal injury case where the proper forum was not clear); Villarreal v. Cooper, 673 S.W.2d 631 (Tex. App. 1984)(finding seventy-seven days was not sufficient time for successor counsel to bring a tort case when prior counsel had the case for sixteen months and evidence and witnesses could no longer be located).

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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.

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The case is captioned Kalomakls Management v. Lawrence & Walsh, P.C., 2018 NY Slip Op 00282. The plaintiff filed an arbitration proceeding against a contractor who worked on the renovation of Plaintiff’s diner. The Defendant law firm represented the plaintiff during that trial. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the contractor and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff then sued the law firm for legal malpractice. The law firm obtained summary judgment and that decision was affirmed on appeal because the Plaintiff could not prove that absent the negligence it would have won the underlying case. Because plaintiff could not prove proximate causation (or negligence) the grant of summary judgment was affirmed.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

http://www.clintonlaw.net

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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: