Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Idaho Clarifies Proof Requirement In Legal Malpractice

The Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment against a plaintiff who had sued her former attorneys for legal malpractice.

It is undisputed that the defendants had filed suit against a medical center on behalf of the plaintiff shortly after the statute of limitations had expired.

The court rejected a standard that the suing plaintiff had only show some chance of success in the underlying medical malpractice case

we now disavow the “some chance of success” rule from Murray and the cases applying it. Instead, we fully reiterate the standard advocated by Respondents and cited in Lanham, 164 Idaho at 359, 429 P.3d at 1235, that a plaintiff in a legal malpractice case must generally prove a “case within a case” to establish proximate cause. In Lanham, we first set forth the elements of a legal malpractice claim against an attorney in Idaho:

(1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship that gives rise to a duty of care on the part of the attorney to the client; (2) an act or omission by the attorney in breach of the duty of care; (3) the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of damage to the client; and (4) the fact and extent of the damages alleged. Id. We then explained, “[a]s in many other torts, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving each of these elements by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id.

In so holding, we also recognized the nuance in legal malpractice cases that comes in establishing proximate cause—that cause “which, in natural or probable sequence, produced the complained injury, loss or damage complained of. It need not be the only cause. It is sufficient if it is a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, loss or damage.” Beebe v. N. Idaho Day Surgery, LLC, 171 Idaho 779, 526 P.3d 650, 657 (2023)

The Lanham precedent

This reference was the Court’s effort to clarify that plaintiffs in legal malpractice cases shoulder a heavy burden. They must try two cases: The legal malpractice case before the court and the underlying case in which the lawyer allegedly committed malpractice. Respondents cited Lanham in support of this standard in their joint memorandum in support of their motion for summary judgment. While Rich also cited Lanham in her opposition memorandum to summary  judgment, she argued that the case is “entirely inapposite to this case.” In reality, Lanham and the premise for which it stands are squarely on point with the issue before us.

The lack of admissible expert testimony was fatal to the "case within a case" proof

Rich argues that the district court abused its discretion in deciding that her experts were not qualified to testify. Her argument turns on the conclusion that the district court applied the wrong legal standard to evaluate the foundation for her three experts: (1) attorney Lance Nalder, (2) Dr. Garber, and (3) Nurse Collins. Because the alleged legal malpractice occurred while handling a medical malpractice case, the district court had to analyze Rich’s expert witness disclosures under the standard required by Idaho Code sections 6-1012 and 6-1013. The remaining issue hinges on whether any of Rich’s expert witnesses provided admissible testimony. For the reasons below, we hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion by striking Rich’s expert witnesses’ testimony. Thus, Rich failed to establish a breach of the standard of care in the medical malpractice case that would give rise to a viable legal malpractice case against Respondents.

(Mike Frisch)

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