Proximate Cause and Legal Malpractice

Legal malpractice claims are among the most difficult to prove and demand the skills and experience of a seasoned legal malpractice attorney. These claims are based on negligence principles and elements where a plaintiff who is alleging legal malpractice must prove the following elements by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence:

  1. The plaintiff was engaged in an attorney-client relationship
  2. The defendant-attorney had a duty to the plaintiff-client to provide competent and professional services to the client that members of the legal community are expected to provide
  3. The defendant-attorney failed to meet the standard of care, skill, and diligence expected from members of the legal community
  4. The negligence of the defendant was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages

The element of proving that the attorney’s negligent conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages can often be elusive, and many people are unsure or confused about what proximate cause means in the context of a legal malpractice claim. 

Proximate Cause in Negligence Claims

In a typical auto accident injury claim where negligence is alleged, the defendant driver has a duty toward an injured driver, passenger, or pedestrian to exercise ordinary care while driving, which usually means obeying the rules of the road. When the defendant driver runs a red traffic signal or stop sign, makes an unsafe turn, or drives recklessly, he has breached his duty of care. If the claimant is injured, he must show that the negligent driver’s conduct proximately caused his injuries and damages.

Proximate cause is demonstrated by showing that the act of disobeying a red traffic light or failing to stop for a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk led to the plaintiff’s injuries, medical expenses, lost wages, and emotional distress. But if there was an intervening act, such as a truck behind the defendant’s vehicle that crashed into the rear of the defendant’s car and struck the claimant in a crosswalk, then the defendant’s actions were not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Similarly, if the plaintiff had the same or very similar injuries that pre-existed the accident, or he ran into the roadway against the light and was struck, then his own comparative fault will disprove that the defendant’s degree of negligence, if any, was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. 

Proximate Cause in Legal Malpractice Claims

In defining proximate cause in legal malpractice claims and other negligence actions, some courts use the “but for” standard. For instance, but for the attorney’s failure to act or give the proper advice, did that act or omission lead to the plaintiff’s damages? 

Many legal malpractice claims require the plaintiff to prove the underlying action’s validity initially. A common claim in malpractice actions is that the attorney failed to file a claim within the statute of limitations, thus barring the claim from being litigated. It is the plaintiff’s burden to prove the lawsuit-within-a-lawsuit before proving damages. If the claim was injuries sustained in a slip and fall or car accident, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant in that claim was negligent and that the plaintiff sustained injuries, medical expenses, lost earnings, and other damages that the plaintiff would undoubtedly have recovered but for the defendant’s failure to file on time. Once proven, the plaintiff must show that the attorney’s conduct fell below the standard of care outlined above. And, but for that negligence, the plaintiff would have recovered certain damages or would not have been found financially liable. 

The “but for” standard is actually no different than proving a direct link between the defendant’s conduct and the damages sustained. A plaintiff does not have a greater burden in legal malpractice claims in proving proximate cause than in any other negligence claim. 

Speculative damages are not allowed as all damages must be proved to a legal certainty and were foreseeable. For example, if you allege that your attorney gave you negligent advice that led to your purchasing a business or selling stock, there are usually other factors at play that could have caused the losses you are claiming so that there is no direct causal link, proximate cause, or degree of foreseeability between the advice and the losses you suffered. Also, it may be difficult to show proximate cause between an attorney’s failure to cross-examine a witness at trial and a verdict against you that led to your loss of claimed funds. 

However, if an attorney failed to advise you of tax or other legal consequences that ordinary legal research would have discovered and it led to criminal liability or fines, then there is likely proximate causation. 

Retain a Legal Malpractice Attorney from Burns and Jain 

Persons who bring legal malpractice claims often have substantial damages. An attorney handling such claims often has a double burden of proving the validity of an underlying claim and that the defendant’s attorney’s conduct fell below a recognized standard of care that led to the claimant’s damages. Retaining a legal malpractice attorney from Burns and Jain gives you an excellent opportunity to get the compensation you deserve. 

Call the Law Office of Burns and Jain at (617) 227-7423 for a free consultation about your legal malpractice claim.

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