When an attorney commits legal malpractice, to what kind of money damages might the client be entitled? As we have discussed in this space, a negligent lawyer is one who has violated their duty of care to the client, but the client only becomes eligible for legal redress for that violation if the attorney’s action or inaction has caused harm, loss or injury to the client.
In other words, without that causation link between violation of a reasonable duty and client loss, the client would be unable to collect any monetary damages in a malpractice lawsuit.
The main type of money damages available to a Florida legal malpractice victim in a successful lawsuit is compensatory damages – those designed to compensate the person for financial losses the attorney caused through their negligence. Compensatory damages are viable when “but-for” the lawyer’s negligence, the client would have received more money (such as in a settlement or lawsuit) or would not have become financially liable to others.
While the but-for test sounds easy enough, the underlying issues can be very complex and often require an expert. For example, if the attorney accused of malpractice was negligent in handling the client’s previous case, the question to determine appropriate damages in the malpractice claim is “what the client would have recovered had the underlying case been handled in a competent fashion,” according to Professional Liability of Lawyers in Florida by The Florida Bar.
In a Florida attorney malpractice claim, courts have limited the client’s consequential damages to those for foreseeable harm. Specifically, the loss must have “been within the contemplation of the parties” to recover damages and not from harm that does not “usually result from or could not have been foreseen as a proximate result of a particular negligence,” to quote from Chadwick v. Corbin.
A plaintiff in a legal malpractice suit in Florida may be able to obtain an award of prejudgment interest for a judgment based on “liquidated damage,” meaning a monetary damage award clearly reimbursing for a measurable financial loss.
When an attorney’s negligence or breach of duty is malicious, grossly negligent, reckless or wanton, outrageous or of a similar nature, the client may be eligible to collect punitive damages in Florida. The purposes of punitive damages are to punish a wrongdoer and to deter others from similar, especially harmful behavior.
For example, in Stinson v. Feminist Women’s Health Center, Inc., the appeals court approved of the trial court’s award of punitive damages against the defendant lawyers where the court found they had acted “oppressively and with indifference to the persons and property rights of others” and were “egregious,” “self serving” and “unconscionable.” The court said the evidence supported punitive damages where the lawyers attempted to obtain with manipulation and deceit all the money recovered in their client’s settlement.
In future posts, we will return to the issue of determining compensatory damages in a legal malpractice claim.
(The Stinson case is available on Westlaw at 416 So.2d 1183.)