Primis Corp. v. Milledge, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District, Houston, May 27, 2010
Facts: Defendants agreed to represent the plaintiffs in a certain lawsuit and plaintiffs paid the defendants a $5,000 retainer. Plaintiffs contend the retainer was a "general retainer", while Defendants contend the retainer was specifically for the work to be performed on the particular lawsuit.
Several weeks after plaintiffs paid the retainer, they were served with another suit wherein plaintiff sought confirmation of an arbitration award rendered against Primis Corporation. Plaintiffs delivered the citation to the Milledge law office when no attorneys were present. Soon thereafter, Samuel Milledge sent plaintiffs a letter noting the deadline to file an answer and requesting a retainer. Plaintiffs never furnished the retainer and, eventually, a default judgment was entered.
Primis then filed suit against Milledge asserting claims for negligence, breach of contract, and violations of the Texas Deceptive Practices Act. The trial court found that Milledge owed Primis a duty to clearly and unambiguously advise Primis that Milledge would not be filing an answer for Primis. Although the court noted that Milledge failed to give advice when legally obligated to do so and delayed handling a matter entrusted to his care, no damages were assessed against Milledge since Primis did not present expert testimony to establish that Milledge’s negligence was the proximate cause of its injuries.
Issue: Whether expert testimony was necessary to establish proximate cause?
In a legal malpractice case predicated on professional negligence during litigation, expert testimony generally is required to determine whether the result of the underlying litigation would have been different but for the attorney’s alleged negligence.
[Here] the trier of fact would have to assess whether, with reasonably prudent counsel, the trial court would have vacated or modified the arbitration award against Primis Corporation…The causation inquiry was beyond the trier of fact’s common understanding, therefore, expert testimony was necessary for Primis to prove causation.
Lesson: To prevail in a legal malpractice action, Plaintiff must present expert testimony to establish that "but for" his attorney’s negligence he would have prevailed in the underlying litigation.