WA: Underlying Divorce Action
Facts: Client sued attorney for malpractice following attorney’s representation in the dissolution of marriage. Client claimed that attorney’s conduct at a settlement conference did not meet the standard of care. Client was the grantee of stock options. Attorney failed to give correct advice concerning the separate property character of the stock options. Client claims that without attorney’s mistaken advice, he never would have entered into the settlement agreement that treated the options as community property. In the malpractice action, the court found, during the trial within a trial, that, if the action had gone to court, that court would have found that client owned 60% of the options and the remaining 40% were community property. The court found in favor of client and attorney appealed.
Issue: Whether the trial court erred not permitting expert testimony to reach the conclusion that the stock options were 60% clients separate property.
Ruling: The trial court had excluded expert testimony on the ground that only the attorney can testify at the trial within the trial. That exclusion was improper. The issue was whether the options were given for past services or for present and future services and the attorney’s expert witness, who had evidence contrary to the disposition of the court, should have been heard. The error was not harmless and the decision was reversed.
Lesson: If an attorney is being sued for malpractice, it is important to line up expert witnesses that can testify that the attorney’s conduct was not negligent. The court must determine the validity of the underlying claim and the attorney has every right to present evidence to defend his or her position.
“Where it is alleges that an attorney committed malpractice in the course of litigation, the trial court hearing the malpractice claim retries, or tries for the first time, the client’s cause of action that the client contends was lost or compromised by the attorney’s negligence, and the trier of fact decides whether the client would have fared better but for the alleged mishandling.