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NY: Blown Statute? No prob. Argue No Proximate Cause!

Erdman v. Dell 50 A.D.3d 627, 854 N.Y.S.2d 755 N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2008.

NY Undelrying personal injury; worksite accident; scaffolding

Student Contributor: Ryan O’Donnell

Facts: Client filed a legal malpractice suit against attorney arising out of the attorney’s representation of client in an underlying NY Labor Law  § 240 (1) action. Plaintiff was injured while working on a scaffold doing pipe work in a building at 100 Broadway. Defendant’s mistaken brought an action against the owners of the building at 100 Pine street. By the time the mistake was realized, the statute of limitations had already expired. There was some questions as to whether the plaintiff had followed certain safety precautions that may have helped avoid the accident, and whether plaintiff had secured safety locks on the wheels of the scaffolding that may have prevented the accident.

Issue: Is an attorney liable for malpractice if he is not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages, even if the attorney negligently allowed for the statute of limitations to expire?

Ruling: No. "In an action to recover damages for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the attorney ‘failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession’ and that the attorney’s breach of this duty proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages" An attorney is not liable for damages to his client if he was not the proximate cause of those damages. Since there were questionable issues of fact as to what the proximate cause of the accident was, the defendant’s conduct was not a proximate cause of plaintiff’s damages.

Lesson: Summary judgment for legal malpractice liability is precluded if there is a genuine issue of material facts of proximate cause in the underlying action. But  even if an attorney fails to name a proper party as a defendant and the  statute of limitations expires, the  attorney is not liable for malpractice if a plaintiff can not prove that but for the attorney’s failure to file a timely suit the client would have succeeded in the underlying cause of action.

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Posted in: Defenses, New York, Proximate Cause