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Damages for Loss of Liberty for Legal Malpractice

Lawson v. Nugent, 702 F. Supp. 91, (N.J. 1988); 1988 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14576

NJ Underlying criminal action.

Student Contributor: Coleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiff retained the defendant as defense counsel after being indicted for robbery of a post office. Upon the advice of the defendant, the plaintiff pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. While in prison the plaintiff retained new counsel and obtained a reduction in his sentence and was released after serving 5 years. The plaintiff then brought a legal malpractice case against the defendant where he alleged that but for the defendant’s negligent legal representation he would have served a maximum of 40 months in prison. The plaintiff sought damages for emotional distress as a result of the anguish he suffered for the extra 20 months he spent in prison as a result of the defendant’s representation.

Issue: Whether a criminal defendant can recover damages for emotional distress from his attorney in a legal malpractice action based on the attorney’s representation in a criminal proceeding?

Ruling: Yes. The District Court held that the plaintiff may present evidence of emotional distress damages in a legal malpractice action.
1) Generally, damages in a legal malpractice claim are limited to economic loss and damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in a legal malpractice action absent some egregious or extraordinary circumstances.
2) In New Jersey, the courts have increasingly allowed for emotional damages in an increasing number of cases and a plaintiff may prove such damages attributable to an extra 20 months of confinement in prison.

“an attorney who commits malpractice is liable to his client for any reasonably foreseeable loss caused by his negligence including emotional distress resulting from the loss of liberty.” 

Lesson: When representing a client in a civil case, the court is unlikely to award damages for emotional distress absent extraordinary circumstances because the nature of the attorney client relationship is primarily based on economic interest. However, the attorney client relationship in a criminal proceeding is predicated upon a defendant’s liberty interest.  

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Posted in: Criminal Law, Damages, Federal, New Jersey