CT: Underlying personal injury action
Facts: The client hired the lawyer to help him with a personal injury action involving a motor vehicle accident. The lawyer settled the client’s personal injury case for $10,000 (the limit of the tortfeasor’s liability policy), although the client’s injuries exceeded this amount. The client was insured by Aetna with a policy of up to $300,000 in underinsured motorist coverage. However, Aetna refused the client’s request for the underinsured motorist coverage. The client did not file a suit against Aetna to recover the underinsured motorist benefits. Instead, the client filed a legal malpractice complaint claiming that the lawyer’s negligence caused him to lose his rights to pursue a claim for recovery of benefits. The client further claims that this claim became ripe when he was denied the underinsured motorist coverage due to the tolling of Aetna’s statute of limitations. The lawyer claims that the legal malpractice claim will not be ripe until the client actually brings a suit against Aetna and Aetna raises the statute of limitations defense.
Issue: Did the client need to get a judge to decide the underlying case before he can bring a legal malpractice suit against his lawyer?
Ruling: No. There is an actual controversy in this case which makes it ripe for justiciability. Justiciability requires
“(1) that there be an actual controversy between or among the parties to the dispute . . . (2) that the interests of the parties be adverse . . . (3) that the matter in controversy be capable of being adjudicated by judicial power . . . and (4) that the determination of the controversy will result in practical relief to the complainant.”
The fact that the lawyers contest the issues of causation and damages does not require the client to file action with Aetna before filing a legal malpractice claim. To require determination of the underlying case would not further the “judicial economy” and would only serve to add extra cases to the already overloaded court docket.
Lesson: All legal malpractice claims are based on an underlying dispute. A requirement that the underlying dispute be settled before a client can file a legal malpractice claim would unduly hinder the client’s ability to obtain redress against a negligent lawyer.