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Litigation Malpractice: Erroneous Jury Charges

Rudolf v. Shayne, Dachs, Stanisci, Corker, & Sauer,8 N.Y.3d 438; 867 N.E.2d 385 (2007).

N.Y. underlying personal injury action

Student contributor: Cheryl Neuman

Facts: Plaintiff was walking across Sunrise Highway when he was struck by a car. He suffered personal injuries and retained defendants to represent him in his case against the driver. There was a traffic signal that controlled the intersection where the accident occurred. There was conflicted testimony as to whether plaintiff was in the crosswalk at the time that the car struck him. Defendants requested, at the completion of testimony, that the court should instruct the jury regarding the statutory requirements of Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1151. Section 1151 concerns intersections without traffic signals. The provision also imposes a duty on pedestrians not to “suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impractical for the driver to yield.” The jury returned a verdict that both plaintiff and driver were negligent, apportioning 50% of the liability to each party. Plaintiff retained new counsel to set aside the verdict, claiming that the court gave the wrong charge to the jury.

Issue: Whether it was legal malpractice for the defendants to request a jury charge of §1151, when §1111 was the appropriate section that defendants should have requested?

Ruling: Yes, the failure to object to the §1151 jury charge and not to request §1111 was legal malpractice. Section 1111 applies to intersections regulated by traffic signals and grants pedestrians “facing any steady green signal the right of way within a crosswalk.” The erroneous charge was a fundamental error requiring a new trial because it affected the jury’s consideration of the plaintiff’s liability.

Lesson: Damages in a legal malpractice case are designed to make the injured client whole. A plaintiff’s damages may include litigation expenses incurred in attempt to avoid, minimize, or reduce the damage caused by the attorney’s wrongful conduct. The plaintiff in this case was therefore entitled to litigation expenses he incurred in the legal malpractice lawsuit. 

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Posted in: Litigation, New York, Torts/Personal Injury