PA: Underlying divorce case
Facts: The client hired a lawyer to handle her divorce. The lawyer gave the client an incorrect evaluation of the stock owned by her husband. The lawyer told the client that the stock was worthless when in fact it was valuable. The client admits that she knew her husband’s stock holdings were in his name and she did not have title to them. She claims that she would have been in a better bargaining position if she had known the value of the stock. The client claims that the lawyer’s mistake damaged her ability to receive the best possible property settlement after the divorce. The lawyer made a motion for summary judgment. The court granted summary judgment to the lawyer on the ground that the client’s loss, if any, was too speculative to allow recovery.
Issue: Was summary judgment appropriate because the client’s complaint of loss was too speculative?
Ruling: Yes. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact. A genuine issue of material fact did not arise in this case because the client’s claim was based purely on speculation. No one knows whether she would have achieved a better result if she had known the value of the stock. Exactly how much better the result would have been is even more speculative. Thus, dismissal of her case through summary judgment was appropriate because a jury could not have appropriately decided the issue of whether the client would have obtained a better result.
Lesson: When a client claims that a lawyer has breached his professional obligations, an essential element of the client’s claim is a showing of actual loss. If the client cannot prove actual loss, the claim may be too speculative or remote to survive. “The test of whether damages are remote or speculative has nothing to do with the difficulty in calculating the amount, but deals with the more basic question of whether there are identifiable damages…thus damages are speculative only if the uncertainty concerns the fact of damages rather than the amount.” Pashak v. Barish, 303 Pa. Super. 559, 561-562, 450 A.2d 67, 69 (1982).