The Second Department, reversing (modifying) Supreme Court, determined the legal malpractice action should not have been dismissed. It was alleged the defendant attorney, in this traffic accident case, failed to pursue damages in excess of the insurance-policy limits against the tortfeasor personally. Defendant did not demonstrate plaintiff would not have prevailed in an action against the tortfeasor personally:
“In an action to recover damages for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession and that the attorney’s breach of this duty proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages” … . “The plaintiff is required to plead actual, ascertainable damages that resulted from the attorneys’ negligence” … .
Here, the defendants failed to establish, prima facie, that the plaintiff had no actual or ascertainable damages. “The defendant must affirmatively demonstrate the absence of one of the elements of legal malpractice” … . The complaint alleged that the damages included the failure to pursue SUM benefits, as well as the failure to pursue recovery against the alleged tortfeasor. Since it was alleged … that the defendants’ legal malpractice prevented the plaintiff from obtaining a judgment against the alleged tortfeasor, the defendants had the burden of affirmatively demonstrating that the plaintiff would not have prevailed against the alleged tortfeasor or that the alleged tortfeasor did not have personal assets such that his motorist insurance policy limit that was recovered in the amount of $50,000, was the maximum judgment that could have been obtained from him … . The defendants failed to do so. Chicas v Cassar, 2023 NY Slip Op 00202, Second Dept 1-18-23
Practice Point: Defendant attorney in this legal malpractice case did not demonstrate plaintiff would not have prevailed in an action against the tortfeasor personally in the underlying traffic accident case. Plaintiff alleged defendant attorney negligently failed to seek damages over and above the policy limits from the tortfeasor. Therefore defendant’s motion for summary judgment should not have been granted.