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Establishing Damages with Reasonable Certainty: An Element of Proximate Cause

Boyer v. Walker, 714 A.2d 458 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998)

PA Underlying Commercial Action

Student Contributor: John Anzalone

Facts: Plaintiffs became junior lien holders when they issued a mortgage to property owners who had outstanding prior mortgages, including two held by a bank. Upon default by the property owners, the bank foreclosed on its mortgages. Plaintiffs were aware of the foreclosure. Notice of judgment for the bank, and of the attendant sheriff’s sale of the property, was sent to the defendant attorney who represented the plaintiffs when they issued the mortgage. Plaintiffs discovered this after the sale occurred, and subsequently sued the attorney for professional negligence as a result of his failure to forward the notice of the sheriff’s sale. More specifically, plaintiffs alleged that had they received notice of the foreclosure sale, they would have appeared at the sale and would have attempted to purchase the property, inasmuch as they believed that the property was worth far in excess of the bank’s liens.

Issue: Was the attorney liable for plaintiffs’ damages as a result of his failure to forward the notice of the sheriff’s sale?

Ruling: The Court ruled that the attorney was not liable based on the following considerations:
1) Attorneys can only be held liable for professional malpractice where (1) an attorney-client relationship is established between the plaintiffs and the defendant attorney; (2) the attorney failed to exercise ordinary knowledge and skill; and (3) that failure proximately caused the plaintiffs’ damages.
2) As junior lien holders, plaintiffs lost all interest in the property when it was sold at the sheriff’s sale, but plaintiffs failed to show that this harm would have been prevented if the attorney had forwarded them notice of the sale, since they failed to present evidence concerning the purchase price at the sheriff’s sale, the bids made at the sheriff’s sale, the amount of money they were prepared to bid at the sheriff’s sale, and whether other bidders were ready and able to bid.
3) Thus, plaintiffs failed to establish that they suffered damages proximately caused by the attorney’s alleged negligence.

Lesson: Proximate cause requires establishing the identity of the damages suffered with reasonable certainty.

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Posted in: Commercial, Damages, Pennsylvania, Proximate Cause