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When the plaintiff in a legal malpractice case proves that negligence on the part of his former attorney has caused the loss of the opportunity to assert a claim and thus establishes the inference of causation of damages resulting from the lost opportunity for recovery, an appellate court (viewing the evidence on the merits of the original claim in the light most favorable to the prevailing party in the trial court) must determine whether the negligent attorney met his burden of producing sufficient proof to overcome plaintiff's prima facie case.
This is a legal malpractice action brought against plaintiff's two former attorneys, who allegedly allowed prescription to run before filing suit on plaintiff's claim for damages for personal injuries sustained in a truck-train collision. The trial court, after a jury trial and verdict in favor of plaintiff, rendered judgment against both attorneys in the sum of $87,000. The court of appeal reversed, holding that plaintiff's negligence was a contributing cause of the collision and would have barred his recovery against the railroad company. In the present case, the attorneys concede that they were negligent in not filing suit until two days after prescription had run. The client contends that, once the client has established negligence on the part of the attorney, the burden should be placed on the negligent attorney to prove that the mishandled claim or litigation would have been unsuccessful.
Must the client, after proving the attorneys' negligence, also establish the validity of the underlying claim by proving that the attorneys' negligence caused him damages and by further proving the amount of the damages?
The court held that when the plaintiff in a legal malpractice case proved that negligence on the part of his former attorney had caused the loss of the opportunity to assert a claim and thus establishes the inference of causation of damages resulting from the lost opportunity for recovery, an appellate court must determine whether the negligent attorney met his burden of producing sufficient proof to overcome the plaintiff's prima facie case. The court concluded that, even viewing the evidence of the collision with the burden of proceeding shifted to the attorneys, the court of appeal correctly concluded that the client's substantial blameworthy conduct barred his recovery.