In an attorney-client relationship, the lawyer owes a reasonable duty of care to the client within the scope of the representation. Should an attorney act in a client matter inconsistently with taking reasonable care, and violation of this duty harms the client, they may have a claim for legal malpractice.
To practice law within the scope of a reasonable duty of care, an attorney must have and exercise the ordinary skill, competence and knowledge a lawyer needs to undertake the legal work for which the client retained them. Failure to exercise due care in the practice of law that causes a client harm or loss is often called legal negligence.
Reasonable care includes acting in the client’s best interests and with diligence and prudence in litigation. For example, reasonable care would include performing sufficient legal research, discovery and analysis of the client’s legal options at trial, followed by sound exercise of judgment in the courtroom.
Pending Missouri legal malpractice claim
Unfortunate events form the basis for legal malpractice allegations in Missouri involving the descendants of Kansas City billionaire Cecil Van Tuyl. Local media has reported widely on the family and the circumstances leading to the claim.
The elder Van Tuyl’s grandson, who is recently deceased and suffered from severe mental illness, was the beneficiary of a trust created by his grandfather and reportedly worth about $80 million. Several trustees, including Van Tuyl’s daughter who is also the beneficiary-grandson’s mother, managed the trust and made distributions for the grandson’s benefit. The trust had a no-contest clause, meaning that if a beneficiary challenged the terms of the trust, the beneficiary would no longer be eligible to receive any trust distributions.
During a difficult time of the grandson’s illness, the trustees reportedly stopped paying benefits to get the grandson to comply with medical treatment. His lawyers filed a lawsuit seeking to transfer control of the trust assets to the grandson. Instead, this suit triggered the no-contest provision and ended his legal interest in the fortune.
Now, his mother as personal representative of his estate has sued the grandson’s lawyers first in state court and then in federal court. According to the St. Louis Record, the June complaint alleges malpractice “based on their complete failure to competently and carefully represent [the grandson] …”
The mother reportedly states that his attorneys (now legal malpractice defendants) had advised him that the suit would not violate the no-contest clause, with which a court later disagreed, finding the grandson’s interest void because of the lawsuit. The mother’s malpractice complaint says that her son’s lawyers ignored a consultant’s advice to first get a court ruling on whether the grandson’s suit would trigger the no-contest clause before trying to obtain the trust assets by filing the lawsuit, says the Kansas City Business Journal.
Reportedly, nothing has yet gone to trial, but we will report back in this space about further developments of that shed light on an attorney’s duty of care.