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NY Duty to Investigate

Thompson v. Seligman 53 A.D.3d 1019, 863 N.Y.S.2d 285 (A.D. 3 Dept., 2008).

NY: Litigation, Duty to Investigate

Student Contributor: Ryan O’Donnell

Facts: Plaintiff was employed by AMFAC Recreational Services, Inc. AMFAC regularly provided cleaning services to the Gideon Putnam Hotel. While performing her duties cleaning at the Gideon, plaintiff suffered injuries and retained defendant attorney to represent her in a workman’s compensation claim. When plaintiff inquired about a possible claim for pain and suffering against the Gideon, defendant advised her that she could not pursue a claim, based on his mistaken belief that plaintiff was employed by the hotel. Plaintiff then consulted with a different attorney who advised her that she did have a claim against the Gideon, except for that the statute of limitations had expired.

Issue: Can a mistaken assumption by an attorney give rise to a legal malpractice claim?

Ruling: Yes.

“An attorney has the responsibility to investigate and prepare every phase of his or her client’s case.”

There was sufficient documentation that stated plaintiff’s employer was AMFAC, not the Gideon. Had defendant made the appropriate inquiry he would have known that plaintiff was not employed by the Gideon, and that plaintiff could have a third party claim against the Gideon for pain and suffering. The defendant’s failure to investigate the availability of a third party claim by plaintiff raises a question of fact whether the defendant exercised an appropriate duty of care to the client.

The Lesson: As an attorney, you have the responsibility to investigate and prepare every phase of your client’s case. If there is information that will further the interests of your client that is easily ascertainable, and you fail to use such information, you have breached your duty of care to your client. Unless the client actively misrepresents information to you, you can be liable for malpractice if your mistaken assumption would have been corrected by further inquiry. 

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Posted in: Duties: Investigate, New York