Law School Case Brief
Kaufman v. Stephen Cahen - 507 So. 2d 1152 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1987)
An attorney's failure to accurately predict changes on an unsettled point of law is not actionable.
In 1980, the doctor treating plaintiff Arlene Kaufman's husband allegedly misdiagnosed a cancerous mole on Mr. Kaufman’s foot. Three years later, Mr. Kaufman died of cancer. In 1983, Kaufman retained defendants Steven Cahen, P.A. ("Firm"), and Keith Chasin to represent her in a wrongful death action against her husband's doctor. During the period that the Firm represented Kaufman, case law in the district held that the wrongful death statute of limitations, § 95.11(4)(d), Florida Statutes (1981), applied to claims such as Kaufman's, namely, claims for a patient's wrongful death that allegedly resulted from medical malpractice. Under this law, Kaufman's claim could have been filed as late as Nov. 16, 1985, some time after the Firm and Chasin were discharged. In unrelated proceedings, the Supreme Court of Florida subsequently ruled that claims such as Kaufman's had to comply with the medical malpractice statute of limitations, § 95.11(4)(b), Florida Statutes (1983), and had to be filed within two years of discovery of the negligent act, but no later than four years after the negligent act. By the time these decisions were released, the statute of limitations under § 95.11(4)(b) had already run on Kaufman's claim. Kaufman filed a legal malpractice action against defendants in Florida state court, alleging that the Firm and Chasin were negligent in failing to anticipate the change in the law and, as a result, negligently failed to file suit before the statute of limitations under § 95.11(4)(b) had run on her claim. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Firm and Chasin, holding that they were not liable for legal malpractice because an attorney's failure to accurately predict changes on an unsettled point of law was not actionable. Kaufman appealed.
Was failure of the Firm and Chasin to accurately predict changes on an unsettled point of law actionable?
The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court and held that the Firm and Chasin could not be held liable for their failure to predict changes on an unsettled point of law. According to the court, the Firm and Chasin acted in honest belief, under the law in effect at the time of their representation, that they had time to file Kaufman's claim. The court averred that an attorney, who acted in good faith and in an honest belief that his advice and acts were well founded and in the best interest of his client, was not answerable for a mere error of judgment or for a mistake in a point of law that had not been settled by the court of last resort in his state and on which reasonable doubt may be entertained by well-informed lawyers.
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