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.
The court explained its ruling as follows:
As noted, the disputed element on summary judgment in this case is causation. To establish that element in a legal malpractice action, the plaintiff must show that the plaintiff “would have obtained a more favorable result in the earlier action if the attorney had not been negligent.” Jeffries v. Mills, 165 Or App 103, 122, 995 P2d 1180 (2000); see also Hoekstre v. Golden B. Products, 77 Or App 104, 106, 712 P2d 149 (1985), rev den, 300 Or 563 (1986) (“When a defendant attorney is negligent in the conduct of an appeal, the plaintiff in the malpractice case must prove that the result of the appeal would likely have been favorable in order to prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s damages.”). In Jeffries,we explained:
“When the `more favorable result’ depends on how a factfinder would have resolved the case but for the attorney’s negligence, causation is a factual issue in the malpractice case. When, however, the attorney’s alleged negligence involved the handling of a legal matter decided by the court, causation is to be resolved as a legal question. [Chocktoot v. Smith, 280 Or 567, 571-73, 571 P2d 1255 (1977)].”Jeffries, 165 Or App at 122 (emphasis added).
In this case, as the parties acknowledge, because the alleged attorney negligence involves the failure to timely prosecute an appeal, it presents a legal question.Chocktoot, 280 Or at 573 (“The legal consequences of an attorney’s failure, in the earlier case, to present a timely pleading or motion or to take an appeal are matters for argument, not proof.”); id. at 575 (“The question what decision should have followed in the earlier case if the defendant attorneys had taken proper legalsteps is a question of law for the court.”); Stafford v. Garrett, 46 Or App 781, 786, 613 P2d 99 (1980) (“Whether or not the plaintiff would have prevailed on appeal is a question of law.”). Specifically, the trial court was required to decide as a matter of law how an appellate court would have ruled on the merits of an appeal of the limited judgment absent Stoel Rives’s negligence—that is, had a timely appeal been filed.
As discussed above, the trial court resolved that question on summary judgment, concluding that Springville had failed to establish that it would have prevailed in an appeal of the limited judgment on any of the three grounds that it asserted and, consequently, that Stoel Rives was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In summary, the trial court correctly concluded that there was no merit to an appeal of the limited judgment in the underlying case on any of the three grounds asserted by Springville. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to Stoel Rives.
This case highlights a difficult burden that every legal malpractice plaintiff faces – the plaintiff must show that but for the lawyer’s error, plaintiff would have won the underlying case.