Articles Tagged with Proximate Causation

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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.