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NJ: Legal Malpractice=No Underlying Attorneys Fee Charged Against Recovery

DiStefano v. Greenstone et al., 357 N.J.Super. 352 (App.Div. 2003)

NJ: Underlying Case: Personal Injury in foreign country

Student Contributor: Percy Pomares

Facts: Plaintiff filed claim against defendant for mishandling their personal injury claim. A contingency fee agreement of 33 1/3% was entered into between the plaintiff and defendant in turn for the plaintiff’s representation in the personal injury action that resulted from an accident in Italy. Defendant represented himself to plaintiff as having significant experience with international personal injury cases yet failed to contact the adversaries in the case leading to the claim eventually becoming time-barred. It was determined by the court that Italian law governed on the issue of damages while New Jersey law applied to the legal malpractice claim. Plaintiff recovered a $90,000 settlement fee without deduction of an attorney’s fee of $30,000 leading to what appears to be a duplicate recovery.

Issue:  Do the fees that a lawyer would have earned in the underlying case, but for his negligent handling of the case,  deducted from the client’s recovery in the legal malpractice against that lawyer? 

Ruling: Although it may seem that the client is making out better in the legal malpractice case than he would have in his botched underlying  personal injury case, the court held that is considered the lesser evil as opposed to crediting the defendant  lawyer for a fee he would not have been entitled to receive due to his negligent handling of the underlying action. 

“Ordinarily, an attorney may not collect attorney fees for services negligently performed…and in addition, a negligent attorney is responsible for legal expenses and attorney fees incurred by a former client in prosecuting the legal malpractice action.”

Lesson: If anyone should benefit from having to endure two lawsuits it should be the client and not the attorney.

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Posted in: New Jersey