CA: Fiduciary Duty
Facts: Plaintiff and his two brothers sued a theater owner for wrongful death relating to their father’s fall at the theater. Plaintiff’s brothers settled with the theater, but Plaintiff continued the suit substituting new counsel for mandatory settlement conferences and trial. At trial, the jury ruled in favor of defendant and awarded statutory fees and costs against Plaintiff for over $250,000. Plaintiff sued Defendant for breach of fiduciary duty claiming that Defendant did not investigate his case sufficiently, nor did Defendant warn him of the possibility that he could be responsible for the theater’s attorney fees and costs if he lost. Defendant filed for and were granted summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.
Issue: Did Defendant have a continuing duty to investigate further or advise Plaintiff about the effects his brothers’ settlements would have on his case?
Ruling: No. Defendant was not Plaintiff’s attorney at the time of the settlement,. Therefore, Defendant did not have a continuing duty to investigate further or advise their former client about the effects of his brothers’ settlement. Additionally, Defendant’s inclusion of civil right violations in the initial complaint and their alleged failure to advise Plaintiff of the risk of paying defense fees if he lost did not cause plaintiff’s injury. In applying a proximate causation standard the court found that the brother’s settlements was the proximate cause of the attorney fees imposed on Plaintiff.
Lesson: Drafting of the complaint is not so closely connected to the award of attorney’s fees as to justify imposing liability.