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PA: Lawyer's Fraud as Basis for Malpractice

O’Callaghan v. Weitzman, 436 A.2d 212 (Pa. Super. Ct., 1981)

PA Underlying Tort Action.

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: The plaintiffs, husband, wife and daughter, brought a fraud and legal malpractice action against the defendant resulting from the defendant’s representation of in a vehicular negligence accident. The defendant hired a colleague to handle the plaintiff’s case who in turn hired another attorney to institute the suit on the plaintiff’s behalf. By the time the attorney attempted to commence the action, the statute of limitations had run as for the two adult plaintiffs. The attorney alerted the defendant and his malpractice insurer as to his error. Without any authority to do so, the defendant negotiated with the attorney’s insurer and obtained a $9,000 settlement offer for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs accepted the offer under the impression that the settlement was for the original automobile accident. The defendant deducted 40% contingent fee from the $9,000 and gave the plaintiffs a personal check for the remainder of the balance. When the plaintiffs learned the truth behind the settlement they brought this action against the defendant for fraud and legal malpractice.

Issue: Whether the lower court erred in granting the plaintiffs motion for a new trial on the issue of fraud?

Ruling: No. The plaintiff’s evidence was sufficient to warrant submission of the issues of fraud and damages to the jury.
1. “Fraud is composed of a misrepresentation fraudulently uttered with the intent to induce the action undertaken in reliance upon it to the damage of its victim..[and] the evidence must be sufficient to ‘enable the jury to come to a clear conviction, without hesitating, of the truth of the precise facts in issue’.”
2. The jury could come to a clear conclusion that the defendant defrauded the plaintiffs because the defendant failed to truthfully inform the plaintiff about the nature of the settlement in an effort to avoid being sued for malpractice.
3. Furthermore, as a result of the defendant’s actions the plaintiff was denied the opportunity to have a disinterested advocate pursue a malpractice claim against the attorney for missing the statute of limitations.

Lesson: A deliberate nondisclosure by a lawyer of a material will amount to fraud and legal malpractice for which the client can sue the lawyer.

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Posted in: Duties: Communicate, Pennsylvania, Torts/Personal Injury