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CT: Legal Malpractice Claim Ripe to Be Heard Even Before Your Original Case is Finished

Weiner v. Clinton,100 Conn. App. 753,  919 A.2d 1038 (2007)

CT: Underlying Action: Interference with business relationship

Student Contributor: Nicholas Scot Kingsbury

Facts: Former client sues attorney claiming that while representing the client, the attorney negligently failed to respond to discovery demands which resulted in a default judgment entered against them. Client further claims false representation, and a breach of fiduciary duties.   The defending attorney countered, arguing that the former client’s claim for lawyer malpractice was not ripe for review. The attorney argued this because at the time client filed its complaint, the client was still actively trying to appeal the default judgment against it. The attorney reasoned (along with the trial court) that because of this, the amount of damages (experienced by the client) were not yet determinable, and therefore, the client could not yet bring a claim against the attorney for lawyer malpractice. The trial court dismissed the client’s claim, stating that a court does not have jurisdiction to hear a case when the underlying litigation has not yet been given a final decision.

Issue: Is a legal malpractice claim unripe to be heard in court if the underlying litigation has not yet been given a final decision?

Ruling: No. The client’s legal malpractice claim became “ripe,” and presentable to the court, upon the moment the underlying litigation was legally subject to dismissal by the court, regardless of whether it was actually dismissed. A claim will be unripe, or non-judiciable, when it is a “hypothetical injury,” or when the claim is “contingent upon some event that has not and indeed may never transpire." Although the client’s underlying litigation has not reached a final decision, the client has still suffered very real damages including: entry of a default judgment against them, loss of legal fees to former attorney, and loss of arbitration award.

“All legal malpractice cases are based on underlying rights, for which the plaintiff originally sought legal representation. To require that the underlying dispute as to those rights, in all cases, must be completely resolved prior to bringing a malpractice action would unduly restrict the plaintiff’s remedy against the allegedly negligent lawyer”

Lesson: As long as a client can demonstrate real damages; meaning damages that are not “hypothetical” or contingent upon events that may never happen, the client is permitted to bring a legal malpractice claim against her former attorney. It does not matter that all issues from the underlying litigation have not fully been resolved (i.e. the exact amount of attorney’s fees lost as a result of the faulty representation).  

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