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TX: No Causation in Malpractice Action = Summary Judgment

Rodgers v. Weatherspoon, 141 SW 3d 342 (Tex. App. 2004)

TX: Underlying criminal defense

Student Contributor: Megan Diodato

Facts:  The client was charged with aggravated assault and the attorney was appointed to represent him. The client filed motions to act on his own behalf and to dismiss attorney as his counsel. The attorney filed a motion to withdraw. The motion was granted that day. The client personally contacted the court multiple times and on one of his visits the client was arrested because the judge determined his bail was not sufficient. The client claims the clerk told him that if his attorney had been present in court he would have been released to his attorney and would not have to go to jail. The client filed a suit, claiming the attorney committed legal malpractice because he did not communicate with him and did not appear in court in time to allow client to avoid arrest. The client claims damages resulting from spending six days in jail and having to pay additional money for the increased bond. The attorney contends that he had no duty to the client and was not the cause of his arrest and damages. The client appeals attorney’s summary judgment that dismissed his legal malpractice claim.

Issue: Whether attorney’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the client’s injuries.

Ruling: No.   Attorneys have a fiduciary relationship with their clients as a matter of law and summary judgment may be proper if it is shown that the attorney’s act or omission was not the cause of any damages to the client. The two components of proximate cause are cause-in-fact and foreseeability. Cause-in fact is where the defendant’s acts or omissions were a substantial factor in bringing about the injury that would not otherwise have occurred. Foreseeability does not require that the actor anticipate the particular injury that eventually occurs. In a legal malpractice case, where a lay person would ordinarily be competent to make a determination on causation, expert testimony is unnecessary. The attorney offered evidence through the trial judge’s testimony that the attorney had nothing to do with the client’s bond being held insufficient, as it was insufficient on his own. After the attorney presented this evidence, the client then had the burden of introducing his own evidence to raise an issue of material fact about causation. The client failed to meet this burden and offered no evidence that the attorney ever received word that he needed to appear at the court before the client was taken to jail. Only the county clerk said she had called the attorney’s office and left a message, but had not spoken to the attorney. There is no evidence that the client’s claimed harm would have been diminished or would not have occurred if the attorney had acted the way client contends. The attorney disproved the causation element of client’s malpractice claim as a matter of law.

Lesson: In order to win on a malpractice claim the plaintiff must prove that their harm would have been less or would not have occurred at all  if defendant acted in accordance with the standards of care. 

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Posted in: Criminal Law, Fiduciary Duty, Proximate Cause, Texas