Articles Posted in Proximate Causation

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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.