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Ruling denies legal malpractice plaintiff's distress claim

Being the victim of substandard legal representation can be costly, both in terms of legal fees and in an unjust verdict against you. It is also highly stressful for many people, to the point that it could even be emotionally damaging.

Emotional distress is a legitimate type of damage to seek in many personal injury claims in California. But whether plaintiffs in legal malpractice litigation can seek compensation for their former attorney causing them emotional distress is somewhat controversial.

In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a man who was deported from the U.S., away from his family, because of his attorney's negligence could sue the lawyer for emotional distress. On the other hand, a recent case from Connecticut has gone the other way.

In that case, a woman was suing her personal injury attorney. She nearly died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, and suffered severe injuries to her brain and other body parts. The woman later sued the driver and obtained a settlement.

Her attorney told her that they would also sue the bar where the drunk driver worked and drank alcohol at the night of the accident. However, the attorney did not file the suit within a year's time, as required. Though there was no chance of a verdict or settlement, the attorney allegedly lied to his client, continuing to assure her that the bar would help pay for her injuries.

When the plaintiff learned of the deception, she sued for legal malpractice. Among her claims was that her former lawyer caused her emotional distress.

The judge in the case dismissed that claim, on the theory that it was indistinguishable from her claim of legal malpractice. He said the main claim of the suit should be sufficient.

These are state court rulings, so they have no bearing on the law in California. Still, it is interesting to see which way the law is trending elsewhere.

Source: The Connecticut Law Tribune, "Ruling Spares Lawyer From Emotional Distress Claim," Christian Nolan, June 24, 2014

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