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There can be no liability for acts and omissions by an attorney in the conduct of litigation which are based on an honest exercise of professional judgment.
Hewlett Tomlin, counsel for the plaintiffs, filed two suits for personal injuries sustained by plaintiffs, and one for damages to the car, against the driver and the owner of the truck involved in the accident. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants. In the present malpractice action against Tomlin, the plaintiffs contended that the loss of their personal injury actions was proximately caused by the breach of fiduciary duties arising from the attorney-client relationship. According to the plaintiffs, Tomlin or other members of his law firm (collectively, defendants): (i) failed to attempt to obtain a change of venue or take a nonsuit and re-file in a federal court after the first personal injury trial resulted in a hung jury; (ii) failed to object to a “clearly erroneous” jury instruction at the second personal injury trial; (iii) failed to include the giving of the instruction in the motion and grounds for a new trial; (iv) failed to consult a traffic reconstruction expert to develop time/distance factors and establish stopping distances; (v) Failed to interview and present available witnesses who could testify to important facts; (vi) failed to bring to attention of the trial court certain Tennessee statutes bearing on issues in the case; and (vii) negligence in the conduct of the appeal. The district court dismissed plaintiffs’ action. Plaintiffs challenged the decision.
Did the district court err in dismissing plaintiffs’ legal malpractice action against defendant attorneys?
Yes, with regard to several of the plaintiffs’ claims.
The court held that defendants' failure to seek a change of venue, failure to object to a jury instruction, decision to establish the physical facts of the case by use of an engineer's plat rather than the testimony of an expert, and decision to make certain concessions in an appellate brief did not furnish a basis for a malpractice action. However, the court held that several of plaintiffs' claims were improperly dismissed because they could have amounted to legal malpractice, including defendants' failure to interview and present available witnesses, failure to bring to the attention of the trial court statutes as a basis for finding in favor of plaintiffs, and failure to inform plaintiffs of a conflict of interest. According to the court, for loss to clients resulting from a want of proper knowledge of matters of law in common use, or of such plain and obvious principles as every lawyer was presumed to know, an attorney will be held liable. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for a new trial.