PA Underlying Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice
Student Contributor: John Anzalone
Facts: Plaintiff retained Defendant Attorney to represent him in a personal injury case against Philadelphia and in a related medical malpractice case. Settlement offers were made by Philadelphia and were not conveyed to Plaintiff before Defendant rejected them. Later, at defendant’s suggestion, Plaintiff settled the personal injury case, believing the medical malpractice case was viable since Defendant claimed that it was. A fee dispute then took place between Defendant and Plaintiff’s prior attorney, in which the attorneys’ claims for 50,000 dollars in an escrow account were rejected by the court which ordered that the funds be returned to Plaintiff. However, Defendant was later able procure them from Plaintiff as a "gift." The medical malpractice case was subsequently dismissed on summary judgment. Plaintiff then sued for legal malpractice alleging negligence and a breach of the attorney’s fiduciary duty. The lower court held for Plaintiff.
Issue: Was an expert witness’s testimony regarding the breach of the standard of care required?
Ruling: In affirming the lower courts ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held an expert witness’s testimony regarding the breach of the standard of care was not required, based on the following considerations:
1) Attorneys commit malpractice if they fail to use "ordinary skill and knowledge" in settlement negotiations and that failure damages their client.
2) Defendant had a duty to investigate the settlement offers made and to convey them to his client. His failure to do so breached his duty to the client. This breach was accompanied by harm, so malpractice occurred.
3) The court held that this breach of duty does not require an expert witness’s testimony. The average person would know that failing to investigate a settlement offer is a breach of the attorney’s duties.
4) Expert testimony was also not needed about the breach of fiduciary duty because the Code of Professional Responsibility establishes these duties and prohibits an attorney from suggesting that the client make a gift to the lawyer. (Code of Professional Responsibility EC 5-5).
Lesson: Expert testimony is not required in Pennsylvania when the breach would be obvious to an average person or when the rules governing professional conduct in the state have been violated.