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Articles Posted in Legal Malpractice

I 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.

When 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?

We 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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