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NY Proximate Cause; Faulty Assessment of Chance of Winning at Trial: Should I have Settled Instead?

Leder v. Spiegel  31 AD3d 266, aff’d 9 N.Y.3d 836, 872 N.E.2d 1194 N.Y., 2007

NY Underlying probate

Student Contributor: Ryan O’Donnell

Facts: Defendant represented plaintiff in an underlying probate matter. Rather than accept a settlement offer, plaintiff decided to continue at trial, where they were unsuccessful in challenging the will. The plaintiff bases his malpractice claim on defendant’s advice on the prospect of success in the underlying case, and that he would have accepted the settlement were it not for his attorney’s advice. There was no documentary evidence that shows that plaintiff refused to settle strictly based on defendant’s advice.

Issue: Is an attorney liable for legal malpractice if he was not the proximate cause of the client’s damages, even if he negligently represented his client?

Ruling: No.

"In order to sustain a claim for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must establish both that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession which results in actual damages to a plaintiff, and that the plaintiff would have succeeded on the merits of the underlying action ‘but for’ the attorney’s negligence"

The failure to demonstrate proximate cause mandates the dismissal of a legal malpractice action regardless of whether the attorney was negligent. Since there was no evidence that the defendant’s advice was the sole basis for refusing the settlement, the defendant was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s loss, the defendant attorney was not liable for malpractice.

The Lesson: Even an attorney who negligently represents his client will not be liable for malpractice if he is not the “but for” cause of the client’s damages. To establish liability based on the loss of a settlement opportunity, the plaintiff must prove that but for the attorney’s negligence he would have accepted the settlement offer. A court will not rely on bare allegations of fact by a plaintiff without documentary evidence to prove proximate cause.

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Posted in: New York, Wills Trusts & Estates