NY Underlying Litigation: Wrongful Death and Negligence
Facts: Decedent retained Defendant Attorney to represent her in her claim against a building owner after she was injured by a faulty elevator. Decedent shortly thereafter died from complications from her injuries before an action was commenced against the building owner. Defendant brought suit on her estate’s behalf, but failed to get letters of administration. Consequently, the suit was dismissed for lack of standing. After failing in his attempts to obtain letters of administration, Defendant told Plaintiffs that he was withdrawing and that the action had been dismissed. However, Defendant continued to represent the Plaintiffs in their attempts to get letters of administration so that they could sue the building owner. Defendant later told Plaintiffs that a suit against the building owner had become practically impossible to maintain because the statute of limitations that had run several years earlier. Plaintiffs sued Defendant Attorney. The case was dismissed based on time bar and failure to state a cause of action.
Issue: Was the statute of limitations tolled by the "continuous representation doctrine?"
The Ruling: In reversing the lower court, the Appellate Division held that the "continuous representation doctrine" tolled the statute of limitations, based on the following considerations:
1) The "continuous representation doctrine" tolls the three year statue of limitations doctrine period in the matter in which the alleged malpractice occurred.
2) The doctrine is triggered when there is a "continuing attorney-client relationship" after the malpractice occurs.
3) Here, the defendant continued to represent the Plaintiffs after first failing to obtains letters of administration to bring the negligence and wrongful death suits,
4) The alleged malpractice occurred because Defendant failed to obtain letters of administration before both statue of limitations expired.
5) After the malpractice occurred, Defendant allegedly led the plaintiffs to believe that a suit could still be filed against building owner if the letters of administration were obtained.
6) The Defendant did not inform the plaintiffs until well after the statute of limitations against the attorney had run that it was practically impossible from the Plaintiffs to sue the building owner.
The Lesson: Although the statute of limitations may have run for a malpractice claim against an attorney, that period may be tolled if the Attorney continually represents the plaintiff during the period after the cause of action accrues.