CT: Underlying breach of contract claim
Facts: The client was a principal and owner of a corporation that operated landfills. The client and the dumping company had entered into a contract in 1985. Specifically, the client believed that the trucks operated by the dumping company were dumping trash at times not allowed in their contract. The client hired the lawyer to represent him in a breach of contract claim against a company that was dumping refuse into the landfills at improper times. Since the 1985 contract contained an arbitration provision, the lawyer strategically decided to institute an action against individuals who were not parties to the contract so that he could gain information through discovery procedures. The lawyer encountered many obstacles and delays, and the arbitration was never completed. The client sued the lawyer for malpractice. The court granted the lawyer summary judgment because the client failed to present expert testimony as to whether the lawyer’s conduct met the standard of care for lawyers doing similar work.
Issue: Were the clients required to present expert testimony to prove their breach of contract claim?
Ruling: Yes. In the absence of an express contract to see the claim through to its conclusion, a lawyer is only liable if his performance fails to comply with the applicable standard of care. If the determination of the standard of care requires knowledge that is beyond the experience of an ordinary fact finder, expert testimony is required. The only exception to the expert testimony rule is when the lawyer’s performance constituted an obvious and gross want of care and skill, or “doing nothing when something was required.” The lawyer in this case did not act with gross want of care or skill because there was considerable evidence at trial regarding the strategies that the lawyer used, the obstacles he encountered, actions that he took, and reasons behind those actions. Thus, the expert testimony exception does not apply here, so the jury would need to hear expert testimony to determine if the lawyer acted with the appropriate standard of care.
Lesson: The rationale behind the expert testimony rule is that “in most cases, determination of an lawyer’s standard of care, which depends on the particular circumstances of the lawyer’s representation, is beyond the experience of the average layperson, including members of the jury and perhaps even the presiding judge.” In addition, a lawyer-client relationship does not include an implied promise to see a case through to conclusion. The fact that the lawyer did not see this case through to its conclusion is not necessarily evidence that he acted with gross disregard of the case while he was representing it.