Campagnola v. Mulholland, Minion & Roe, (pdf)
76 N.Y.2d 38 (N.Y. 1990); 555 N.E.2d 611
N.Y. Underlying personal injury action
Student Contributor: Jason Klein
Facts: Plaintiff was struck by a car while working as a crossing guard and was permanently disabled. Plaintiff retained Defendant to pursue a claim for personal injuries and agreed to a contingency fee of one third for any money recovered. The owner of the car that struck Plaintiff was insured for only $10,000. Plaintiff herself was insured under a Government issued policy for underinsured benefits for $100,000. The Government policy required consent prior to the settlement of any claim against the person deemed responsible for the insured’s injuries. Defendant failed to notify the Government insurance company before settling with the car owner for $10,000, of which $3,150 was deducted as a fee and $550 for expenses. When Plaintiff submitted a claim under the Government issued policy, her claim was denied because the settlement with the car owner was made without consent. Plaintiff commenced this action against Defendant seeking $100,000 in damages for malpractice and Defendant asserted an affirmative defense to reduce any recovered damages by the amount Defendant would have received as attorneys’ fees and expenses in the personal injury action.
Issue: In a malpractice action against an attorney, can the attorney deduct the “hypothetical” fee that would have been payable to the attorney in the underlying action?
Ruling: No. An attorneys’ malpractice constitutes a failure to honor faithfully the loyalty owed to a client. Thus, the plaintiff’s recoverable damages are not limited by a deduction for the fee that she would have paid the defendant had the defendant properly performed the contract of representation.
The Lesson: A reduction in the plaintiff’s recovery equal to what the attorney would have earned but for his negligence, is impermissible because a negligent attorney is precluded from collecting a fee.