Law School Case Brief
Noble v. Bruce - 349 Md. 730, 709 A.2d 1264 (1998)
The elements of a cause of action for negligence or malpractice against an attorney require a plaintiff to allege: 1) the attorney's employment; 2) his neglect of a reasonable duty; and 3) loss to the client proximately caused by that neglect of duty.
In order to establish a duty owed by the attorney to the non-client, the non-client must allege and prove that the intent of the client to benefit the non-client was a direct purpose of the transaction or relationship. In this regard, the test for third party recovery is whether the intent to benefit actually existed, not whether there could have been an intent to benefit the third party.
The beneficiaries in these consolidated legal actions filed separate legal malpractice actions against the attorneys in each of their cases. The beneficiaries accused the attorneys of failing to properly advise their respective decedents with regard to estate planning consequences. The beneficiaries argued that the court should create a new rule of foreseeability that would allow an attorney to predict the class of persons to whom he or she would be liable at that the time he or she rendered service. The lower court determined that the beneficiaries could not maintain legal malpractice actions against the estate planning attorneys. The case was appealed.
Can a non-client, testamentary beneficiary maintain a cause of action for professional malpractice against an attorney that provided negligent estate planning advice to the testator or negligently drafted the testator's will resulting in significant estate and inheritance taxes?
The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court and of the trial courts and assessed costs against the beneficiaries. The court continued to apply the traditional rule of strict privity in legal malpractice cases. The court noted that the beneficiaries had not actually hired the attorneys. The court pointed out that the third party beneficiary exception to the rule of privity did not apply to the contracts between the testators of the wills and their respective attorneys as the contract was only for the purpose of benefitting the testators' own interests in planning their estates, and they were not primarily intended to benefit the beneficiaries.
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