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NY:Client's Duty to Cooperate with Counsel Causes Their Own Damage

Ryan v. Powers & Santola, LLP, 73 A.D.3d 1273, 899 N.Y.S.2d 486 (2010)

NY: underlying personal injury case

Student Contributor: Alexis Trezza

Facts: Plaintiff was injured while dining at a T.G.I.Friday’s restaurant in September 1999. He retained defendants to represent him in a negligence action against T.G.I.Friday’s and Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, and a lawsuit was commenced in 2002. After defendants failed to comply with a number of discovery orders from the Court on plaintiff’s behalf (despite the Court extending the discovery schedule numerous times), plaintiff’s complaint in the personal injury lawsuit was dismissed. Plaintiffs sued defendants for legal malpractice and breach of contract. Plaintiffs allege that “but for” defendants’ negligence in failing to respond to discovery demands and preclusion motions, in failing to follow court orders, in consenting to conditional orders and in failing to move to vacate the dismissal order, plaintiffs would have been successful in their underlying personal injury action. Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment on liability which was denied and plaintiffs appeal.

Issue: Should plaintiffs have been granted summary judgment on the issue of liability?

Ruling: No. A claim of legal malpractice will be sustained if the plaintiff establishes “both that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession which results in actual damages to a plaintiff, and that the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action but for the attorney’s negligence. To succeed on their motion, plaintiffs have the burden of establishing prima facie that “but for” defendants’ negligence, they would have prevailed in their underlying personal injury action. Even if the Court were to have concluded that plaintiffs established their prima facie entitlement, defendants did raise a question of fact as to whether plaintiffs failed to cooperate with defendants in providing them with pertinent economic and financial information with which they could have complied with the discovery orders. Furthermore, plaintiff’s medical history created questions of fact as to causality.

Lesson: This is all about the Clients’ Duty to Cooperate with the Lawyer. Just as there are duties of the Lawyer to the Client so to the Client is duty bound to work with their  attorney and provide him/her with the documentation that will allow him/her to comply with necessary discovery orders that would  prevent the clients’ complaint from getting dismissed. If client is  not cooperative, they can hardly expect to sue their  lawyer for malpractice when the  complaint gets dismissed because he/she didn’t/couldn’t comply with discovery demands or order.  

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Posted in: New York