MS: Underlying Murder Charge
Facts: Smith sued his appointed lawyer, Sneed, alleging he committed malpractice during his representation on a charge of murder. Smith pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentence to 20 years in prison. 3 years later, through a new lawyer, Smith obtained a copy of the autopsy of his alleged victim that showed the victim died of natural causes so Smith’s conviction was set aside and a new trial was ordered and Smith signed a release and was released from prison. Smith alleges his lawyer was negligent in failing to obtain a copy of this autopsy report before advising him to enter a guilty plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Sneed moved for summary judgment saying the 6-year statute of limitations had run and also that the release Smith signed released Sneed and others from any and all claims arising out of the case. The trial judge granted summary judgment to Sneed. Smith appealed.
Issue: Whether the Circuit Judge erred in ruling that the statute of limitations ran from the time Smith entered his guilty plea and whether the Release signed by Smith was freely and voluntarily executed was a question of fact, not law and so it was error to grant summary judgment on the issue.
Ruling: Reversed and Remanded for further proceedings as if the motion for summary judgment had been denied. The statute of limitations does begin to run on the date the client learns or should learn of the negligence of his lawyer and this raises factual questions here and questions of material fact existed with regard to the voluntariness of the waiver executed by Smith. Sneed argued at the latest, the statute of limitations period began to run when he was told about the missing autopsy report by a constable at the prison; Smith argued it did not begin to run until he was released from prison because the full extent of his damages was not ascertainable until that date, or at the earliest, when he received a copy of the autopsy report. The court agreed with the trial judge in rejecting the “continuing injury” principle which applies only in situations where the defendant commits repeated acts of wrongful conduct, not where harm reverberates from a single, one-time act or omission. Alternatively, Smith urged the Court to adopt a “discovery” standard for matters of legal malpractice. The Court held that whether the Constable conveyed the contents of the autopsy report in a sufficient manner to put Smith on notice that Sneed was negligent was a factual question for jury determination, not summary judgment. The court also held that regarding the release signed by Smith, he presented facts which could lead a reasonable juror to conclude that the release was not entered into voluntarily and with a full understanding of his legal rights (he denied ever reading it and only signed it to be released from jail). It was inappropriate to grant summary judgment.
Lesson: A client who signs a release stating that he will not file a lawsuit against state defense lawyers must do so knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. Some states impose a discovery window to permit a client to discover the lawyer’s malpractice note.
Note: The release of a lawyer by a client for the lawyer’s malpractice is prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct in most states.