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NY: The Delicate Balance Between Proximate Cause and Collateral Estoppel

Pechko v. Gendelman,  20 A.D.3d 404; 799 N.Y.S.2d 80 (2nd Dept. 2005)

NY Underlying Medical Malpractice Action

Student Contributor: Natalie Resto

Facts: The plaintiff underwent a mammogram while a patient with Doctor #1, who, she claimed, told her that the mammogram was normal. Later that year she underwent a mammogram with Doctor #2 and was diagnosed with cancer. The surgeon recalled seeing in the first mammogram certain “micro-calcifications” that were “suspicious of cancer.” The plaintiff sued Doctor #1 for medical malpractice. During the course of representation, the attorney who was representing her forwarded the mammogram films to a radiologist for evaluation, who before the evaluation misplaced them. The plaintiff then retained an appellate law firm to represent her in the medical malpractice action. Doctor  #1 moved for summary judgment arguing that the films constituted key evidence, and that the loss of that evidence irreparably prejudiced his ability to defend the action. The lower court granted the doctor’s summary judgment because the plaintiff failed to counter the motion with expert affidavits sufficient to create issues of fact. The plaintiff then brought this action against the law firm to recover damages for legal malpractice for failing to properly defend her against the summary judgment motion in the medical malpractice action.  The law firm argued that because it was not responsible for the loss of the mammogram film, which occurred before it was retained, its negligence was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages. The law firm moved for a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The lower court denied it and the law firm appealed.

Issue: Was the law firm negligent in its representation of the plaintiffs in a medical malpractice action?

Ruling: Yes. The court found that the motion was properly denied because the absence of the mammogram films did not require the conclusion that the plaintiff would be unable to establish the law firm’s negligence. Here the firm did not rebut the plaintiff’s claim that they were negligent in failing to obtain secondary evidence concerning the films.

Lesson: Even when a court’s determination in an underlying medical malpractice action may be read as holding that the plaintiff will be unable to establish the merits of the medical malpractice action, that determination should not be given collateral estoppel effect against the plaintiff when he or she has alleged that the determination in the underlying action was the result of his or her attorney’s negligence.


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Posted in: But for-Proximate Cause, New York, Proximate Cause, Torts/Personal Injury