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Inlet Condo. Ass'n v. Childress Duffy, Ltd., Inc. - 615 F. App'x 533 (11th Cir. 2015)

Rule:

In Florida an attorney may be held liable for damages incurred by a client based on the attorney's failure to act with a reasonable degree of care, skill, and dispatch. This does not mean, however, that an attorney acts as an insurer of the outcome of a case. Good faith tactical decisions or decisions made on a fairly debatable point of law are generally not actionable under the rule of judgmental immunity.

Facts:

In 2007, Inlet Condominium Association, represented by Childress Duffy Ltd., filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Citizens Property Insurance Company seeking to recover for damages allegedly caused by Hurricane Frances in September of 2004. Inlet's windstorm policy with Citizens had a coverage limit of $21.9 million and a deductible of $1.095 million. Before the suit was filed, Inlet and Citizens had failed to settle their differences; Inlet had demanded a total of $4.6 million, but Citizens had only offered $750,000. When Inlet did not recover all the damages it sought at trial, due to the holding that there was insufficient evidence to prove the damages to Inlet’s property, it filed the current legal malpractice action against Childress Duffy. According to Inlet, Childress Duffy should have presented expert testimony to support the claim for hurricane damages. The district court concluded Childress Duffy was entitled to summary judgment based on Florida’s doctrine of judgmental immunity. Noting that Inlet had not claimed or presented any evidence that Childress Duffy had not acted in good faith, the district court held that the matter in dispute was a fairly debatable or unsettled area of law because there was no Florida case requiring an expert on every element of damages, or a case forbidding an expert to attempt to opine in related fields, let alone a case requiring a particular expert in a particular field. The court concluded that since the doctrine of judgmental immunity applied – due to Childress Duffy’s exercise of reasonable judgment – as a matter of law, Childress Duffy had not breached any duty it owed to Inlet.

Issue:

Did Florida’s judgmental immunity doctrine – which provided malpractice immunity to attorneys making good faith tactical decisions or decisions on a fairly debatable point of law – apply to a law firm’s decision not to use a particular expert witness at trial in support of a hurricane damage claim?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court held that the judgmental immunity doctrine provided malpractice immunity to Childress Duffy’s decision regarding the use of a particular expert witness in a hurricane damage claim because even though Florida's intermediate courts of appeal did not apply the doctrine consistently, application of the judgmental ruling doctrine was supported by the Florida Supreme Court's articulation of the doctrine, and the interpretation and application of the doctrine by the applicable state appellate court. More specifically, Crosby v. Jones, 705 So. 2d 1356, 1358 (1998), stated that there was judgmental immunity for decisions made by attorneys on a fairly debatable point of law or attorneys' good faith tactical decisions, and Natural Answers, Inc. v. Carlton Fields, P.A., 20 So. 3d 884 (2009), applied the doctrine to attorneys' good faith tactical decisions.

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