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The Error of Judgment Immunity: An Elusive Defense

Gelsomino v.Gorov, 502 N.E.2d 264, 149 Ill.App.3d 809, (App. Ct. Ill., 1986)

IL Underlying Representation: Insurance coverage lawsuit

Student Contributor: John Anzalone

Facts: Plaintiffs sue Attorney and his law firm for legal malpractice for negligently investigating, preparing and presenting Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the insurer that failed to cover the loss of their restaurant to a fire. Plaintiffs obtained Attorney as their counsel shortly before trial after their previous attorney had to withdraw because he was involved in an ongoing trial. The jury found for Insurer on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ had committed arson and fraud.

Issue: Did the lower court err in holding that since the plaintiff did not present a question of fact regarding proximate cause or the attorney’s breach of duty, the alleged errors were not actionable because they were errors of judgment, and that Plaintiffs were barred from claiming Defendant was negligent?

The Ruling: In reversing the lower court, the Appellate Court held that summary judgment was improperly given, based on the following considerations:
1) Plaintiffs are estopped from relitigating facts in one action that were specifically litigated and decided in a prior action. The Plaintiff’s post-trial motion in the underlying case claiming that the court erred in not granting continuance and that this resulted in their counsel being unprepared did not bar Plaintiffs from asserting that Defendants were negligent.
2) To prove legal malpractice, Plaintiffs must establish that there was an attorney-client relationship, "a duty arising out of that relationship" that was breached, and that the breach proximately caused Plaintiffs’ actual damages.
3) Plaintiffs were Attorney’s client and were damaged by the jury verdict.
4) There was a question of fact regarding the attorney’s breach of duty because Plaintiffs.rovided expert testimony alleging specific breaches of the attorney duty of care to Plaintiffs.
5) There was a question of fact about proximate cause because Plaintiffs supplied affidavits of people Defendants’ knew about but failed to investigate whose testimony would have rebutted the circumstantial proof of arson and fraud alleged by Insurer.
6) An error of judgment is not immune for prosecution. If the attorney’s judgment was one that a reasonably competent attorney would not come to, the attorney can be held liable for failing to exercise a "reasonable degree of care or skill in representing his client."

The Lesson: Errors of judgment is not an absolute defense to lawyer malpractice.  It is no defense that the allegedly negligent attorney’s judgment was a non-actionable tactical choice if a reasonable attorney would not come to that conclusion. 


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Posted in: Illinois, Insurance, Litigation