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CT: Expert Testimony Unnecessary Where Want of Care and Skill Is Obvious

Paul v. Gordon, 58 Conn. App. 724, 754 A.2d 851 (Conn. App. 2000)

Underlying real estate matter

Student Contributor: Laura Binski

Facts: The clients hired the lawyer to represent them in the negotiation of a lease (with option to buy). The clients had deposited $30,000 toward the purchase price when an issue arose regarding property repairs. The lawyer told the clients to stop paying rent to the landlord/seller. The landlord/seller began a summary process action. The lawyer told the clients he would “handle it.” Afterwards, the clients received no further communication from the lawyer. The clients were evicted and lost the $30,000 deposit. An investigation revealed that a default judgment for failure to appear had been rendered against the clients in the summary process action, yet the lawyer had never notified the clients of any court dates. The clients sued the lawyer for malpractice but did not disclose the names of any expert witnesses they intended to call at trial as is required by Connecticut law. The court granted the lawyer’s motion to preclude expert witnesses and ultimately granted the lawyer’s motion for summary judgment.

Issue: Was expert testimony necessary in the malpractice action to establish the negligence of the lawyer in the handling of the underlying summary process action?

Ruling: No. As a general rule, Connecticut requires plaintiffs in a legal malpractice action to introduce expert testimony to establish the standard of professional skill or care. However, an exception to this rule applies when “there is such an obvious and gross want of care and skill that neglect is clear even to a layperson.” Davis v. Margolis, 215 Conn. 408, 416 n. 6, 576 A.2d 489 (1990). In this case, expert testimony was unnecessary due to the lawyer’s failure to do anything at all to protect the clients’ interests.

Lesson: “The requirement of expert testimony in malpractice cases serves to assist lay people, such as members of the jury and the presiding judge, to understand the applicable standard of care and to evaluate the defendant’s actions in light of that standard.” Davis v. Margolis, 215 Conn. 408, 416, 576 A.2d 489 (1990). In this case, the lawyer told the clients he would “handle it,” and then basically abandoned the case without notice to the clients. A layperson would not have needed the help of an expert to determine that the lawyer here behaved with gross want of care and skill when his lack of action resulted in the clients’ eviction, relocation expenses, and loss of $30,000 deposit.

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Posted in: Connecticut