Professional Liability

Are Noneconomic Damages Available in a Legal Malpractice Action?

, The Legal Intelligencer

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Matthew B. Weisberg
Matthew B. Weisberg

In the beginning, there were courts of chancery separate and apart from courts of law. Chancery courts would deal with financial or commercial damages, while courts of law would deal with noneconomic personal losses. One could not get an award for pain and suffering from a chancery court just as an injunction would not issue from a court of law.

Since those days of yore, courts across the country have largely abandoned or otherwise merged those distinctions. While New Jersey and Delaware still have chancery courts (and Philadelphia has a commerce court), there is no strict preclusion from obtaining noneconomic damages from those courts of otherwise general jurisdiction. Likewise, causes of action have similarly merged; for example, commercial disparagement remedies financial losses as well as reputational harms.

However, there are still holdovers in our collective legal subconscious. For example, the gist of the action doctrine or economic loss rule may preclude an action in tort in favor of an action in strict contract. Negligent infliction of emotional distress still requires some sort of personal injury regardless that the vagaries giving rise to that cause of action are convoluted (i.e., is it within the zone of danger? Is it a family member injured? Must plaintiff have a physical reaction?).

Because of the case-within-the-case general requirement in a legal malpractice action, the complexities of the interrelationship between financial and personal injury become even more confusing—with remnants of old law (or, at least, old logic) still attempting to tease apart money from pain. To that end, the Superior Court recently reconfirmed that legal malpractice negligence and legal malpractice breach of contract causes allow the same remedies if brought from an underlying civil action. But what are those remedies?

Said differently, can one claim noneconomic harm directly from attorney neglect as separate and apart from the harm of the loss of the underlying action?

Of course, if the underlying action was one for personal injuries, then the legal malpractice plaintiff would be able to claim personal injuries stemming from the underlying accident. Likewise, if the underlying matter required attorney fees, then those attorney fees would be recoverable in a legal malpractice action.

However, can an attorney's neglect itself generate compensable pain and suffering? For example, if counsel allows the statute of limitations to expire on a strictly financial claim, can the aggrieved client recover not only the underlying financial loss but additionally pain and suffering having nothing to do with the underlying action but having everything to do with the attorney's inaction?

In Ibn-Sadiika v. Riester, 551 A.2d 1112 (Pa.Super. 1988), appellant-plaintiff Abdullah Haneef Ibn-Sadiika was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery. It was a capital case, and the jury in its penalty phase deadlocked, whereupon the trial court set the penalty at life imprisonment. A variety of post-trial motions were filed bearing an incorrect docket number. Notwithstanding, the trial court heard argument upon the motions and denied them. An appeal followed.

In the appellate record, there existed a stipulation between the prosecutor and defense counsel on behalf of Ibn-Sadiika, then an incarcerated criminal defendant, which waived the misdocketing errors. Despite that stipulated waiver, the Superior Court refused to consider any of the issues raised on appeal, as the underlying docket indicated no post-trial motions had been filed. The Supreme Court denied allocatur.

Ibn-Sadiika, pro se, filed a complaint against defendant Kim Riester, his prior criminal defense counsel, alleging legal malpractice. The complaint was dismissed upon preliminary objections. Ibn-Sadiika filed an appeal, which the Superior Court deemed waived as to the defense attorney's firm for failure of proper "argumentation."

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