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NJ Defenses to Legal Malpractice: Statute of Limitations

Ellison v. Schenck, Price, Smith & King, 654 A.2d 1024 (N.J.Super.A.D. 1995)

NJ: Underlying Real Estate and Litigation

Student Contributor: John J. Anzalone

Facts: Plaintiff’s entered into a lease for developing cemetery grounds. Defendant represented both Plaintiff and the Cemetery. The Defendant also represented the plaintiff in negotiating the terms of the sublease of leased land. After the lease had become unprofitable for Plaintiff, Plaintiff sued Defendant. Plaintiff asserted that they relied on defendant’s advice to enter into the contract because they were wrongly led to believe there was nothing preventing the lawful lease of the land. Plaintiff also claimed they suffered loses because the defendant failed to put an escalation clause in the contract with the person they sublet to.

Issue: Could the statute of limitations only have started to run when Plaintiff’s income from the property decreased and thus entitle defendant to dismissal of the case?

Ruling: In affirming the lower court’s decision on other grounds, the Appellate Division held that the lower court erred in dismissing the case based on the statute of limitations because there was a question of fact regarding when the actual damages occurred, based on the following consideration:
1) The cause of action arises when the plaintiff knows or should have known that they were actually damaged by the attorney’s negligence.
2) The actual damage did not necessarily occur when Plaintiff’s profits were lessened by the increased rent, they could have also occurred when the rate increase made the sublease unprofitable.

Lesson: Statute of limitations for legal malpractice start to run once the Plaintiff knew or should have known that they were actually damaged by the attorney’s negligence. This determination is fact sensitive. Thus, in practice a lawyer bringing a suit against the other lawyer for malpractice should not assume that the actual damage that the plaintiff knew or should have known about occurred when it seems the Plaintiff was first injured by the alleged negligence. 

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Posted in: Defenses, Litigation, New Jersey, Real Estate, Statute of Limitations