COLUMBUS, Ohio (Legal Newsline) - A hypothetical jury award is now a very real element in Ohio legal malpractice law, thanks to a Thursday decision by the state's Supreme Court.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Justices stated that proving what amount could have been won in a trial will be a requirement in bringing attorney malpractice claims. The case concerned a motorist's suit against another who caused a wreck.
"The jury in this case arrived at a figure for damages that was not necessarily reflective of the value of the Patereks' claim against their lawyers; the jury's damage award reflects what the Patereks' suffered through the negligence of Richardson," Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote.
"But the appellant attorneys in this case are not responsible for (Kristopher) Richardson's negligent conduct; they are responsible for their own. This case is not about what Irene Paterek suffered on account of Richardson's bad driving, but what she suffered on account of the appellants' bad lawyering.
"The proper inquiry, then, is this: Had the appellants not been negligent, how much could Irene have received from a settlement or a judgment?"
Pfeifer continued that considering the lost judgment irrelevant would defeat the purpose of tort law, compensation for a loss.
"Thus, it was up to the Irene Paterek to prove what she lost because of the appellants' negligence," Pfeifer wrote.
"She stipulated that she would have received nothing toward a judgment from the tortfeasor himself. The stipulation stated that Richardson did not have sufficient assets to satisfy any judgment beyond his $100,000 automobile liability coverage."
Edward Paterek died in 2003, six years after the automobile accident. In 1998, Peterson and Ibold attorney Jonathon Evans began representing the Patereks.
Evans had the complaint dismissed without prejudice in 1998, but failed to refile it within the one-year time limit. After her husband died, Irene Paterek filed suit against Peterson and Ibold.
She won $382,000 in a jury trial. The award was reduced to the $100,000 Richardson's insurance provided.
An appeals court reinstated the award, saying the amount Edward Paterek could have won did not matter.
Justices Robert Cupp and Maureen O'Connor concurred in part and dissented in part in the Supreme Court ruling. Cupp wrote that the majority correctly ruled that the judgment lost is an essential element of a legal malpractice claim, but the Patereks' own underinsured motorist coverage should not have been included in the award against the law firm.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.