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NJ: Lawyer's Vicarious Liability for Independent Contractors?

Toth v. Vazquez, 3 N.J. Super. 379 (Ch. Div. 1949) (PDF with permission of Thomson West)

Student Contributor: Anthony J. Forzano

NJ Underlying Real Estate Transaction

Facts: Plaintiff, a potential land buyer, brought an action for legal malpractice against the defendant-attorney, Arthur A. Wolpin, who had been engaged by the plaintiff to examine the title and procure a survey of the premises prior to closing.  Plaintiff alleged that Wolpin failed and neglected to obtain an accurate survey.

Issue: Can an attorney be held liable for malpractice for failing to find a deficiency in the work of another professional, even though he acted in a prudent manner in selecting that professional on behalf of his client?

Ruling: No. Although it is the duty of an attorney who is retained to examine the title to real estate to make a reasonably diligent and zealous investigation of the public records, and to impart to his client all of the observable defects, deficiencies, and imperfections of the title, he is required only to exercise ordinary care, skill and diligence.

Given that Wolpin inspected all pertinent records and rendered an accurate report of record title, he had satisfied the standard of “ordinary care, skill, and knowledge”. The Court further noted:

“Nor is it evident that this defendant in acting for the plaintiffs failed to exercise reasonable care and precaution in the selection of a competent surveyor, even assuming a duty so to do. Assuredly, this defendant did not expressly agree to warrant the precision and accuracy of the survey”.

Lesson: An attorney must act in a reasonably diligent fashion in terms of his investigation of the pertinent issues and retention of other professionals, and cannot be held liable for malpractice as a result of damage incurred by his client owing to the negligence of others involved in the transaction.

Editor’s Note: What if the attorney had engaged a process server who negligently failed to properly serve a complaint and the statute of limitations ran?  The lawyer’s immunity for the negligence of an independent contractor hired to aid in the representation of a client is not so clear. See, e.g., Kleeman v. Rheingold, 81 N.Y.2d 270 (1993):

As plaintiff’s attorneys, defendants had a non-delegable duty to her and, accordingly, they cannot evade legal responsibility for the negligent performance of that duty by assigning the task of serving process to an "independent contractor."

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Posted in: Duties: Competence, Duties: Investigate, New Jersey, Real Estate, Standard of Care, Vicarious Liability