Articles Posted in Legal Malpractice

jury verdictHere at Michaels & Smolak, on any given day, you are likely to find, on our attorneys’ desks, piles of dog-eared, highlighted, and marked-up volumes of the New York Jury Verdict Reporter. The Reporter summarizes jury verdicts on a weekly basis from around New York State. (Actually, this publication is now called “VerdictSearch“, but old-timers like me, and most New York personal injury lawyers, still call it the “Jury Verdict Reporter“.)

Why do we read it?  To help us represent YOU in YOUR CASE.  True, every case is different, including yours, so the New York Jury Verdict Reporter provides only limited guidance.  Every case, including yours, has a unique set of facts, lawyers, and jury members. All of these variables can and do affect the result of a case. Therefore, in one sense, the result of a single case reported in the Jury Verdict Reporter literally tells us nothing about how your case will end up.

But if you keep reading the jury verdict reports week after week, as we do, certain patterns emerge that are very helpful to both predicting the result of, and guiding our handling of, your case. Here are five main lessons that come out of the jury verdict reporter:

stupid lawyerWe lawyers at Michaels & Smolak have been around the block a few times. Collectively the four of us have clocked in over 100 years of experience as New York personal injury lawyers. But even after all those years, we’ve never been sued — not even once — for legal malpractice. Not that it couldn’t happen; anyone can make a mistake. Maybe we’ve just been lucky. But we do believe we have excellent systems in place to avoid committing malpractice.

Many of our peers have not been so lucky or so organized. We often read cases where our brethren NY personal injury lawyers have been successfully sued for legal malpractice. We also sue some of those lawyers for legal malpractice on behalf of their (ex-)clients. Based on all this experience, we believe we have inventoried the most common errors NY personal injury lawyers make. Fellow New York personal injury lawyers, take note:

1. Failing to file a claim within the limitation period. We call this “blowing the SOL” (statute of limitations). This is by far the most common form of legal malpractice committed by New York personal injury attorneys. If you fail to timely file the claim, it is malpractice as a matter of law. The client will get an automatic judgment against you on negligence (though he or she will still have to prove causation, i.e., that the claim would have been successful if timely filed.) Why is this missing the SOL so common? It should not be. The very first thing a lawyer should do when he takes in a new case is diary, in several places, including in a computer tickler system, the time limitations for filing suit. One reason some lawyers miss the SOL is that they do not properly diary it in several places (computer, paralegal diary, etc.). In our office the lawyers meet twice a month to make sure we have diaried all new cases correctly, in all the right places.  We also systematically review each case when there is one-year left on the SOL, and again when there is only six-months remaining on the SOL. Another cause of missing a filing deadline is when the lawyer diaries the wrong statute of limitations, either because he miscalculated or misunderstood the statute of limitations. This is an easy mistake for the inexperience personal injury lawyer to make because, while the SOL for negligence claims is generally is 3 years in New York, it can be as short as one year (for suing a sheriff), or a year and 90 days (for suing a municipality) or two years (for wrongful death claims). Some lawyers just assume the SOL is 3 years without carefully considering or researching the multiple variations that are possible. You either have to know this stuff by heart (as we do) or look it up!

doctor bad.jpgYet another study, reported yesterday in the New York Times, indicates that so called “defensive medicine” — ordering extra tests and performing extra procedures in an attempt to avoid getting sued for malpractice — doesn’t reduce the number of lawsuits. What does drastically reduce medical malpractice claims (besides being a careful and good doctor) is being a GOOD COMMUNICATOR with the patient. That’s because patients rarely sue doctors they like, who treat them with kindness, and who listen to them. Doctors who are liked – because they connect well with the patient — can make mistakes that will often be forgiven. But the same patient wouldn’t think twice about slapping a lawsuit on a cold, distant, non-listening doctor.

I have not seen any similar studies for the legal profession, but it would make perfect sense that lawyers who communicate well with their clients are less likely to get sued. So, fellow lawyers, treat your clients right, listen to them, take the time to explain things to them, joke with them – in sum, win their love! That’s the best malpractice insurance you can buy – and it’s free!

Keep safe!

slience.jpgNew York State has a new rule — §202.5[e] of the Uniform Civil Rules of the Supreme and County Courts — requiring attorneys to omit or redact “confidential personal information” from court-filed papers. The “confidential personal information” includes social security numbers (except the last four digits), the dates of birth (except for the year), the full name of a minor (except for the minor’s initials), and financial account numbers (except the last four digits). Compliance with the new rule is voluntary until Feb. 28, 2015 at which point it becomes mandatory.

Why this new rule? Identity theft, a growing problem. Identity thieves might conceivable go to the Courthouse or County Clerk’s office to peruse publicly available litigation papers in search of enough personal identifying information to get a hold of bank accounts, etc. Further, court-filed papers are soon going online, which will make identity theft even easier.

This new rule makes perfect sense. New York personal injury lawyers like me often file in courthouses and county clerk offices “motions” attaching “pleadings” and deposition transcripts, which traditionally contained private identifying information (client’s date of birth, ss number, etc). At Michaels & Smolak we have been proactive in protecting our clients’ personal information. For several years now we have refused to disclose our clients’ social security numbers in any “pleadings” or other publicly filed documents. When we are required to disclose such information to our opponents, we do so “off the record” so that the information won’t inadvertently show up in any public filings.

judge.jpg.jpgLegal malpractice trials, which have always been kind of weird, just got weirder. In a case of first impression, the New York Court of Appeals in Grace v. Law recently held that the failure of a plaintiff to appeal an underlying adverse ruling does not bar a subsequent legal malpractice claim, unless the attorney-defendant can prove that plaintiff would have been “likely to succeed” in his appeal.

Say what? What does all this mean?

Let’s say your lawyer messed up your New York personal injury trial. He forgot to call a key witness. The jury found against you. You sue him. His defense? “Hey, maybe I should have called that witness, but if you had only appealed the trial result to the appellate court, maybe you would have won. We’ll never know because you never appealed. Therefore I win because you can’t prove the appellate court wouldn’t have given you a victory.”

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for courtroom.jpgJust in case you were wondering how a New York legal malpractice case works (come on, admit it, you were wondering about that all day!), I have a “case study” for you.

I recently sued a lawyer on behalf of a widow and her child. I took over their case after the lawyer had mishandled it. The facts of the mishandled case went like this (in simplified form): a public official had, through his negligence, killed the widow’s husband, but before he died, he went through a terrible amount of agony and suffering. This meant that the widow had two claims:

One claim was for “wrongful death” (“WD”), which mainly means a suit for lost income. The concept of the WD suit is that, had the widow’s husband not been killed, he would have continued supporting her and their children, but now he was dead, and dead men don’t pay the bills.

lawyer & client.jpgI ran across a fellow personal injury attorney’s blog post pointing out that only one state, Oregon, requires attorneys to be covered by malpractice insurance. When you think about it, it’s amazing the other 49 states, including New York, do not require attorneys to carry malpractice insurance, especially personal injury lawyers who handle multi-million dollar claims for their severely injured clients. Can you imagine a surgeon not carrying malpractice insurance? Unheard of. Lawyers make mistakes, too, and their clients should be protected from that, just as doctors’ patients are.

I am not sure whether we need a law requiring all New York lawyers to carry malpractice insurance. But I do think we need, at the very least, a law requiring full disclosure. I think all uninsured New York lawyers should be required to disclose, on their letterhead or in some other prominent place, “we do not carry legal malpractice insurance”. Why? Because most clients see lawyers as “rich” professionals, and assume they have adequate insurance coverage, just like doctors do. If they knew the lawyer they were about to hire was “bare”, they might decide to choose another lawyer who is covered.

Here at Michaels & Smolak we sue lawyers for legal malpractice in New York. From our experience, we know that it is tough to collect on a judgment against an uninsured lawyer. These lawyers have no insurance for a reason; they can’t afford it because they are already in financial straits. Usually, they have multiple debts or judgments against them, little or nothing in the way of assets, and they may file for bankruptcy to protect themselves from their malpracticed clients’ lawsuits. We have seen this happen many times.

photo__1501307_michael_bersani.jpgWhen a client brings a potential New York legal malpractice case to me, one of the first things I do is try to calculate the statute of limitations (the last day the lawyer can be sued). I say try because this is not always easy in legal malpractice cases. And that’s what I am going to blog about today.

Here’s the easy part: The statute of limitations is always three years. Here’s the hard part: When does the three-year period start running? The legalese answer is, “when all the facts necessary to the cause of action have occurred and an injured party can obtain relief in court” (Ackerman v. Price Waterhouse, 84 N.Y. 2d 535). But what does that mean? In most cases, it is the day the lawyer made the mistake (committed malpractice), but not always. Some of the cases say that the damages due to the malpractice need to be “sufficiently calculable” for the clock to start running. But “sufficiently calculable” is not always black and white. There are grey areas. That’s why we don’t always know what a court will find to be the “accrual date” (start date) for the three-year period.

Does it matter when the client found out about the malpractice? Example: A client consults a lawyer about what he thinks is a great lawsuit, but the lawyer tells him (wrongly) that he has no case. More than three years later the client consults another attorney who says, “gee, that was a great case, but your statute of limitations on it expired about a month after you saw that first attorney. That first attorney should have filed suit for you and you would have gotten a million-dollar recovery!” Does the three-year statute of limitations bar the client from suing the first lawyer, even though the client did not know he had been malrpracticed until after the three-year period had run?

deadline.jpgWe have brought many New York legal malpractice lawsuits against other New York personal injury lawyers. In fact, we are one of the few firms in our area willing to sue other lawyers for malpractice. Our experience has taught us a few things. One thing we have learned is how a client can suspect that his lawyer has committed legal malpractice in his personal injury or medical malpractice case even when the lawyer won’t tell the client. How? Read on.

Phone rings. Secretary tells me a potential client is on the phone with a personal injury case and he wants to “switch lawyers”. I take the call. The potential client says, “my lawyer at first told me that I had a great personal injury case, that I had a lot of money coming to me, but now all of a sudden he tells me the case is not worth pursuing. He is trying to talk me into dropping the case. But I don’t want to drop it. Can you represent me?”

Wooo! When I hear this, red flashing lights go off in my head. The first question I ask is, “WHEN did your accident happen?” If the answer is, “just over three years ago”, I say to myself, “bingo”.

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