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PA: Settle & Sue? No Way! (Take 1)

Muhammed v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod and Gutnik
526 Pa. 541, 587 A.2d 1346 (Pa. 1991)

PA Underlying Medical Malpractice Litigation

Student Contributor: Justin B. Lieberman

Facts: Former client sued attorney for legal malpractice after the client was unhappy with the settlement received in the underlying medial malpractice action. In the underlying action clients accepted a settlement offer at a pre-trial conference, and then recanted the acceptance after their lawyer informed the opposing side of acceptance. The opposing side sought enforcement of the settlement and the trial court, at an evidentiary hearing, upheld the settlement, as did the Superior Court on appeal. The clients filed suit against the attorneys. The law firm defended on the following grounds: that the action should be dismissed as the claims were too speculative and settling clients were seeking to relitigate the settlement. The case was brought to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Issue: Can a settling defendant sue his/her lawyer for malpractice although they agreed to settle the underlying claim?

Ruling: A client cannot bring a malpractice claim against a former attorney because of their later dissatisfaction of a settlement to which they agreed,  unless they can show some fraudulent conduct by the attorney  in advising the client on accepting the settlement. Here, the clients, were dissatisfied not able to renegotiate their settlement after they had already voluntrarily accepted an offer. They were thus, not fraudulently induced to settle by their attorney.

We foreclose the ability of dissatisfied litigants to agree to settlement and then file suit against their attorneys in the hope that they will recover additional monies.

Lesson: An attorney may not be held liable when a client later decides they are unsatisfied with a settlement they willingly agreed to at a prior time, unless the attorney fraudulently induced or intentionally misadvised the client to accept the settlement.

Editor’s note: This was the law in PA for many years. The stringent rule in this case, of barring a malpractice suit against the lawyer who represented the settling party– has  since  been substantially limited  and liberalized.

See, e.g., McMahon v. Shea, 441 Pa. Super. 304, 657 A.2d 938 (1995).

The holding in Muhammad has been rejected in New Jersey (Ziegelheim v. Apollo, 128 N.J.250, 607 A.2d 1298 (1992) and Connecticut (Grayson v. Wofsey, Rose, Kweskin & Kuriansky, 231 Conn. 168, 646 A.2d 1994).

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Posted in: Litigation, Pennsylvania, Torts/Personal Injury