O'Neil v. Bergan

452 A.2d 337 (D.C. 1982)

 

RULE:

In a legal malpractice action, a plaintiff must present expert testimony establishing the standard of care unless the attorney's lack of care and skill is so obvious that the trier of fact can find negligence as a matter of common knowledge. 

FACTS:

Client retained law firm and attorneys to represent her with regard to allegations of corporate wrongdoing and redemption of stock in a family owned corporation. The Superior Court (District of Columbia) directed a verdict in favor of appellee firm and attorneys on the ground that appellant client failed to make out a prima facie case of legal malpractice or breach of contract in the absence of expert testimony regarding the standard of care.  On appeal, the court held that the trial court acted properly in directing a verdict as to client's tort and contract claims. In the legal malpractice action, client was required to present expert testimony establishing the standard of care because attorneys' lack of care and skill was not so obvious that the trier of fact could have found negligence as a matter of common knowledge. 

ISSUE:

Did the trial court err in directing a verdict in favor of appellees on the ground that appellant had failed to make out a prima facie case of legal malpractice or breach of contract orin refusing appellant permission to call defense counsel as a witness, and in denying appellant's motion to disqualify defense counsel on ethical grounds? 

ANSWER:

No.

CONCLUSION:

While investigating suspected corporate misconduct and taking various actions to prepare for redemption the stock, attorneys did not exhibit any lack of skill or care that jurors, as a matter of common knowledge, could have found negligent. The subject matter of the representation, when coupled with the substantial amount of legal work undertaken for client, made the case too complex for jury analysis without expert help. Thus, client failed to make out prima facie contract or negligence claims because she failed to offer the expert testimony needed to define reasonable skill.

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