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"Loss of Liberty": Damages for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in Legal Malpractice

Lawson v. Nugent, 702 F. Supp. 91 (D.N.J. 1988)

NJ Underlying Criminal Action

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiff retained the defendant attorney as defense counsel after being indicted for the robbery of a post office. Upon the advice of the defendant attorney, 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. Eventually, he was released after serving 5 years.
Upon release, plaintiff brought a legal malpractice suit against the defendant attorney alleging that, but for the defendant’s negligent legal representation, he would have served a maximum of only 40 months in prison. The plaintiff sought damages for emotional distress as a result of the anguish he suffered for the additional 20 months he spent in prison, allegedly, as a result of his attorney’s ineffective representation.

Issue: Can a criminal defendant recover damages for emotional distress in a legal malpractice action?

Ruling: Yes. The United States District Court, District of New Jersey, held that the plaintiff may pursue emotional distress damages if he could first establish (1) the existence of some egregious or extraordinary circumstance; and (2) the allegedly negligent attorney was retained to protect something other the plaintiff’s economic interests.

Lesson: Given that the attorney-client relationship in a criminal proceeding is predicated upon the protection of the client’s interest in his freedom and sovereignty, “an attorney who commits malpractice is liable to his client for any reasonably foreseeable loss caused by his negligence, including emotional distress resulting from [his] loss of liberty."

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