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NY: But For my Lawyer's Negligence at Trial, I Would Have Settled Before…

Leder v. Spiegel, 9 N.Y.3d 836, 840 N.Y.S.2d 888 ( 2007)

Student Contributor: Maninder (Meena) Saini

NY Underlying will contest

Facts: Plaintiff (attorney) unsuccessfully represented defendants (clients) in a will proceeding and the defendants refused to compensate the plaintiff for the work done on their behalf. The plaintiff then petitioned for legal fees. The defendants counterclaimed for legal malpractice, alleging that “but for” the plaintiff’s negligent representation, which was failing to anticipate that certain evidence would be inadmissible, they would have settled. The plaintiff moved for an order dismissing the defendants’ counterclaim. The lower court dismissed the defendants’ counterclaim. Defendants appealed.

Issue: Did the defendants allege a prima facie case of legal malpractice?

Holding: The appellate division held that the defendants’ counterclaim alleging that the plaintiff failed to anticipate the court’s evidentiary ruling does not establish proximate cause. The plaintiff actively encouraged the defendants to settle but they refused to accept it. Thus, the defendants failed to make a prima facie case of legal malpractice. The lower court’s decision was affirmed.

Rule: “In order to sustain a legal malpractice claim, a client must establish that the attorney failed to exercise ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession which results in actual damages, and that the client would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action “but for” the attorney’s negligence.”
Lesson: The plaintiff must be able to show that the attorney’s negligence was the proximate cause of the damages. The dismissal of a legal malpractice action is warranted if the plaintiff fails to demonstrate proximate cause regardless of whether the attorney was negligent. 

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Posted in: But for-Proximate Cause, New York, Wills Trusts & Estates