Mills v. Cooter

647 A.2d 1118 (D.C. 1994)

 

RULE:

In order to prove legal malpractice, a plaintiff must establish the applicable standard of care, a breach of that standard, and a causal relationship between the violation and the harm complained of. Unless the attorney's lack of care is so obvious that the jury can find negligence as a matter of common knowledge, the standard and its violation must be proved by expert testimony. 

FACTS:

Plaintiffs, clients, sold real estate to a fraudulent purchaser who defaulted. Defendants, attorneys, brought a legal malpractice suit on plaintiffs' behalf against the attorneys in that deal, but declined to bring suit against the real estate brokers. Defendants communicated their unwillingness to file action against the brokers early in their representation. Plaintiffs then brought a legal malpractice action against defendants. At trial, the jury awarded damages to plaintiffs, and the trial court denied defendants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). On appeal, the court reversed the denial of defendants' motion for JNOV and directed entry of judgment for defendants.

ISSUE:

Was evidence sufficient to support a verdict for plaintiffs, clients, because defendants communicated their unwillingness to file suit against the brokers to plaintiffs before the statute of limitations, and reasonable attorneys could differ with respect to the legal issues presented.?

ANSWER:

Yes.

CONCLUSION:

The court held that the evidence was insufficient to support a verdict for plaintiffs because defendants communicated unwillingness to file suit against the brokers to plaintiffs before the statute of limitations ran, reasonable attorneys could differ with respect to the trial strategy, and plaintiffs showed no expert testimony tied to the specific content of the case to support a determination that defendants breached the applicable standard of care, nor would they have been able to do so.

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