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NY: Collateral Estoppel in Legal Malpractice Suit

Pollicino v. Roemer & Featherstonhaugh, 277 A.D.2d 666; 716 N.Y.S.2d 416 (3rd Dept. 2000)

NY Underlying Personal Injury Action; Notice of Claim vs. municipality

Student Contributor: Natalie Resto

Facts: Plaintiff retained defendant law firm to represent him in a personal injury action against the New York City Transit Authority when he lost sight in his eye after a bus ran over a glass bottle causing a shard of glass to strike him in the eye. The notice of claim that the law firm actually served incorrectly listed the date of the accident, which was also repeated in the summons and complaint. About a month later the law firm amended the pleadings correcting the accident date but it made no motion to similarly amend the notice of claim until some three years after service of the erroneous notice of claim. The Transit Authority cross-moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the plaintiff’s notice of claim was defective and the action should be dismissed. The lower court denied the law firm’s motion to amend the notice of claim on the ground that the 4 ½-year delay in seeking to amend the notice of claim was prejudicial to the Transit Authority.
The plaintiff then commenced this malpractice suit against the law firm. The lower court granted the defendant law firm’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the underlying decision holding that the plaintiff’s negligence action would have been dismissed regardless of the alleged malpractice, was entitled to preclusive effect. The plaintiff appealed.

Issue: Does collateral estoppel preclude the malpractice action?

Ruling: Here the court found that the lower court’s comment that the plaintiff’s action would have been dismissed was not entitled to preclusive effect because it was dicta and not necessary to resolve the issue. The court found that the law firm’s failure to serve a proper notice of claim was the error that required dismissal, and that the complaint was dismissed on that ground.

Lesson: To invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel it must be shown that there is an identity of issue that has necessarily been decided in the prior litigation and which is decisive of the present action, and that the party sought to be estopped had a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision that is now claimed to be controlling.

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