Monday, July 30, 2018
The Utah Supreme Court took away significant damages awarded to a legal malpractice plaintiff
Erik Highberg, a personal injury attorney for Gregory & Swapp, PLLC, failed to bring a claim against two truck drivers who severely injured Mr. Highberg’s client, Jodi Kranendonk, before the statute of limitations ran on Ms. Kranendonk’s claim. Mr. Highberg then failed to disclose to Ms. Kranendonk for ten months the fact that he missed the statute of limitations. During that time, he sought other legal avenues to correct his mistake. Ms. Kranendonk ultimately sued Mr. Highberg and Gregory & Swapp (collectively, the Swapp Defendants) for legal malpractice, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent hiring, training, and supervision.
At trial, Mr. Highberg testified that he withheld information from Ms. Kranendonk because he wanted to protect her from stress and worry. In response to this testimony, she sought to admit two statements in which he had written that she was becoming “a pain [in] the ass” and was “a moron.” The district court refused, under rule 403 of the Utah Rules of Evidence, to admit these statements and the trial went forward.
The four claims ultimately went to a jury, which found in favor of Ms. Kranendonk on each. The jury first awarded her $750,000, the amount the jurors believed she would have received if Mr. Highberg had timely brought her personal injury claim against the truck drivers. The jury also awarded her $2.75 million for non-economic damages, i.e., emotional distress she sustained as the result of Mr. Highberg’s malpractice in this case. This second award did not relate in any way to the emotional distress she sustained from the original personal injury. The jury did not award punitive damages.
After the jury’s decision, Ms. Kranendonk moved for attorney fees and litigation expenses on the ground that the Swapp Defendants had breached their fiduciary duties. The district court awarded her $1,166,666.67 in attorney fees—the amount she owed under her contingency fee agreement—but did not award her litigation expenses.
The court vacated both the non-economic damages and attorney fees.
Because the nature and language of the contract in this case do not show that emotional distress damages were explicitly contemplated by the parties, the district court erred in upholding the $2.75 million jury award for non-economic damages under a breach of contract theory.
...we hold that the jury had no evidence upon which to base its verdict that Ms. Kranendonk suffered emotional distress damages as a result of Mr. Highberg’s intentional concealment and, therefore, the district court erred in dismissing the Swapp Defendants’ motion for JNOV under a breach of fiduciary duty theory. And because the $2.75 million jury award for non-economic damages is not supported under either a breach of contract or breach of fiduciary claim in this case, we vacate it.
...We also vacate the district court’s award of $1.666,667.67 in attorney fees because Ms. Kranendonk’s breach of fiduciary duty claim—the only claim that could support this award—failed. And we hold that her claim on cross-appeal for litigation expenses also fails for the same reason.
The court rejected her claims based on exclusion of the "pain in the ass/moron" evidence
we decline to reach Ms. Kranendonk’s challenge of the district court’s decision to exclude Mr. Highberg’s two statements. Ms. Kranendonk seeks the admission of these statements in order to support her prayer for punitive damages. But because her breach of fiduciary duty claim fails, punitive damages cannot be awarded in this case regardless of our decision on this issue. So the issue is moot.