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NJ: No "JNOVs" in Legal Malpractice Claims

Olds v. Donnelly, 291 N.J.Super. 222 (App. Div. 1996).

Underlying Personal Injury Claim

Student Contributor:  Jason Klien

Facts: On June 27, 1985 Robert Olds underwent hernia surgery and sustained significant injuries. Two months later Plaintiff consulted with an attorney, Donnelly, about bringing a medical malpractice claim against his surgeon, Dr. Donahue. Plaintiff signed a retainer agreement with Donnelly on or about August 27, 1985. On June 25, 1987, two days before the statute of limitations was to expire, Donnelly advised Olds that he could no longer represent him. Plaintiff’s case against Dr. Donahue was, therefore, barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

Plaintiff subsequently brought this action against Donnelly for legal malpractice, alleging that the Defendant deprived him of the opportunity to seek compensation for his post-surgical injuries. The jury returned a verdict of $500,000 in Plaintiff’s favor, and Donnelly moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court granted the motion on the grounds that there was nothing within the record to support a finding of legal malpractice against Dr. Donahue. Plaintiff appealed.

Issue: Can the trial court grant a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the basis of a lack of “credible” evidence?

Ruling: No. In deciding whether such a motion should be granted, the court must accept as true all the evidence which supports the position of the party defending against the motion, and must afford that party all legitimate inferences which could be deduced therefrom. If at that point the court could sustain a judgment in Plaintiff’s favor, the motion must be denied.

Lesson: The Court may not weigh the credibility of the evidence presented by the defendant attorney against the evidence presented by the Plaintiff in support of his claims and allegations. This is within the sole province of the jury, and therefore, cannot be the basis of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict:

[T]he trial court presented with such a motion is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent (beyond a scintilla) of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to the party opposing the motion.

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Posted in: Damages, New Jersey, Torts/Personal Injury