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NJ: Emotional Distress Claims Acceptable When There Is Loss of Liberty

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

NJ: Underlying criminal conviction matter

Student Contributor: Laura Binski

Facts: The client was indicted for robbery of a Post Office and hired the lawyer to represent him. The client claims that the lawyer encouraged him to plead guilty to all three counts of the indictment without investigating whether a factual basis existed for the guilty plea. The client was then sentenced to twenty-five years in a maximum-security penitentiary. While in prison, the client hired a new lawyer who successfully made motions to vacate the guilty plea to two aggravated counts of indictment. The client was released after serving five years of his sentence. The client then sued his original lawyer, claiming that but for the lawyer’s negligent representation, the client would have served a maximum of forty months in a correctional facility. The client seeks damages for the emotional distress he suffered during the “extra” twenty months of confinement.

Issue: May a client recover damages for emotional distress when his relationship to the lawyer was based on a liberty, rather than economic interest?

Ruling: Yes.

“A lawyer 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.”

Wagenman v. Adams, 829 F.2d 196, 222 (1st Cir. 1987). The Court reasons that deprivation of his freedom could potentially cause an individual to suffer mental distress. Therefore, the client can go forward with his claim of emotional distress due to the extra twenty months he spent in a maximum-security penitentiary allegedly due to negligent representation.

Lesson: The Court makes a point to distinguish between a loss of liberty and loss of economic interest. Typically, legal malpractice actions revolve around a loss of economic interest. Courts generally do not allow emotional distress claims when it is just loss of economic interest at stake in a legal malpractice case. Guatam v. DeLuca, 215 N.J. Super. 388, 521 A.2d 1343 (App. Div. 1987).

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