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PA: The Need for Legal Malpractice Expert–the First Word

Storm v. Golden, 371 Pa. Super. 368, 538 A.2d 61 (1988)

Student Contributor: Christopher Henn

PA Underlying real estate transaction

Facts: Storm (the Client) retained Golden (attorney) in connection with the sale of her residence after an agreement was reached with a buyer. From the record, it appears that the client had “irrational trust in [a third party that] was founded in Christian faith and fueled by his representation of faith and Biblical interest” and “she couldn’t think for herself.” At the closing, a check for the proceeds was made to the order of the client and that third party. Thereupon the client endorsed the check to the third party and delivered it to him. He has not been seen or heard from since receiving the nearly $25,000 check. After suing the attorney for alleged malpractice, the trial court dismissed the suit at the end of client’s case for a failure to present expert testimony.

Issue: A question of first impression at the time, the court considered whether expert testimony was required to establish an attorney’s breach of his duty of care.

Ruling: The Superior Court held that;
“As a general rule, our Supreme Court has held that “expert testimony is necessary to establish negligent practice in any profession.” Id. at 375 citing Powell v. Risser, 375 Pa. 60, 65, 99 A.2d 454, 456 (1953);
And that “[b]y its very nature, the specific standard of care attributed to legal practioners necessitates an expert witness’ explanation where a jury sits as the fact finder.” Id. at 375-76.
Finally, “[w]hether an attorney failed to exercise a reasonable degree of care and skill related to common professional practice in handling a real estate transaction is a question of fact outside the normal range of the ordinary experience of laypersons.” Id. at 377.

Lesson: This case is the beginning in a long line of decisions in Pennsylvania that recognizes the importance of expert testimony in legal malpractice cases. While the court noted there would be many times in which layperson jurors can decide for themselves, at least in a real-estate transaction such is not the case.

The State Supreme Court denied an appeal. 524 Pa. 630, 574 A.2d 71 (Pa. Nov 03, 1989).

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Posted in: Expert Witnesses, Pennsylvania