NY: Underlying legal malpractice suit
Facts: The underlying case was another legal malpractice action where the clients alleged that the lawyer did not timely bring a property damage claim from a sewer backup at their house against the village. Clients obtained another attorney, defendant in this case, to represent them in that underlying legal malpractice suit but the lower court granted that attorney’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. That court found no triable issues of fact in regards to the village’s negligence because there was no evidence to show that the sewer backup was recurring or that the village had notice of that defect. Subsequently, plaintiffs discovered documents that there was a history of backups in that village and that both attorneys had made a freedom of information law requests for those documents yet failed to follow up on that request. Accordingly, plaintiffs brought a legal malpractice action alleging that the defendants did not obtain those documents prior to the dismissal. To prevail on this legal malpractice claim they needed to prove that they would have obtained a successful judgment but for the attorneys negligence to obtain those documents. A trial was held on whether the underlying case had merit and the jury returned a verdict that was favorable to the plaintiffs. The defendant made a CPLR 4404 (a) motion “to set aside the jury verdict and for judgment as a matter of law, or to set aside the jury verdict as contrary to the weight of the evidence and for a new trial.” The lower court granted that motion and directed a new trial on that issue. Plaintiffs appealed and the defendants cross-appealed that the lower court should have entered a judgment as a matter of law for the plaintiff.
Issue: Was the lower court correct in granting defendants CPLR 4404(a) motion?
Rule: No. The lower court should have denied the defendants motion to begin with. “To be awarded judgment as a matter of law pursuant to CPLR 4404 (a), a defendant has the burden of establishing that there is no rational process by which the jury could find for the plaintiff against the moving defendant. The plaintiff’s evidence must be accepted as true, and the plaintiff is entitled to every favorable inference which can reasonably be drawn from the evidence.” In this case the defendants did not meet that burden and the plaintiffs’ expert testimony established that the village did not properly maintain their sewers. “A jury verdict should not be set aside as contrary to the weight of the evidence unless the jury could not have reached its verdict by any fair interpretation of the evidence” which is not a question about law but rather it is discretionary and about balancing factors. In this case, the jury’s verdict that the village was negligent was supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence.
Lesson: It is a tough burden to have a CPLR 4404 (a) motion granted. It entails the moving party to establish that there is no rational process by which the jury could find for the non-moving party. Also, a jury verdict should not be set aside contrary to the weight of the evidence unless the jury could not have reached that verdict by any fair interpretation which is determined by multiple factors and is discretionary.
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