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MS: Admitting Liability by Default–Not Answering Request to Admit

Byrd v. Bowie, 992 So.2d 1202 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008)

MS: Underlying medical malpractice claim

Student Contributor: Laura Stein

Facts: After attorney-Byrd failed to timely designate a medical expert, in the Bowie’s wrongful death/medical malpractice action, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants (against his clients). On appeal, Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. Clients (Bowies) filed a legal malpractice action and also served requests for admission, upon Byrd, that the negligence of Byrd in the action resulted in their sustaining damages in the amount of $2,000,000. Byrd failed to answer the requests within thirty days as required by Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure and then Bowie filed a motion for partial summary judgment, which was granted as to the issue of negligence. The judge’s order granting partial summary judgment as to Byrd’s negligence was reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court via an interlocutory appeal and they affirmed. Following the supreme court’s affirmance on the negligence issue, Bowie filed a motion for summary judgment with the trial court, arguing that they “established their claim of negligence against the Byrd defendants in this case in its entirety, including actual damages proximately caused thereby, in the amount of $2,000,000.” The trial court agreed and entered a final judgment against Byrd for two million dollars.

Issue: Was there proximate cause?

Ruling: The question became whether Bowie’s claim of legal malpractice calls for expert testimony in order to establish that the Defendants breached their duty of care. An attorney who fails to designate an expert by a court-mandated deadline and does not provide any reason for doing so, is negligent as a matter of law. Therefore, Bowie was entitled to partial summary judgment as to the Defendants’ liability. For the proximate cause of damages, though, the Court has stated that to recover for legal malpractice, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of evidence proximate cause of the injury. The plaintiff must show that, but for his attorney’s negligence, he would have been successful in the prosecution or defense of the underlying action. The case was proven through Byrd’s admittance that his legal error was the proximate cause of Bowie’s damages, albeit the admittance of such proximate cause was established by Byrd’s failure to answer or deny the requests for admission. Any matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established, unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission. The admissions served to establish such proximate cause. The Dissent argued that the majority erred in concluding that Byrd’s default admissions, regarding the extent of Bowie’s damages, eliminates Bowie’s obligation to prove Bowie’s medical malpractice case within the legal malpractice case that Bowie instituted against Byrd.

Lesson: An attorney who has a legal malpractice action filed against him should take the proper steps, within the required time, to respond, regardless of what merit the attorney believes the plaintiff has or lacks, to avoid any default rulings.

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Posted in: Defenses, Mississippi