Expert Testimony Not Admissible to Prove Causation in Legal Malpractice Suits

Our Atlanta injury lawyers know that it is vital to hire the right kind of attorney with solid experience when dealing with personal injury cases. So we were interested to see a recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court holding that a plaintiff in a legal malpractice action may not present expert testimony that he or she would have won the underlying lawsuit but for the lawyer’s errors. The case, Leibel v. Johnson, clarifies that in legal malpractice cases, expert testimony is only allowed for proving standard of care and breach of duty, not proximate cause. Justice Harold Melton explained that this is due to the fact that it is the jury’s role to decide on its own whether the plaintiff would have won the underlying case but for the attorney’s negligent representation.
The underlying case was a gender and age discrimination case. Steven Leibel represented plaintiff Dr. Mary Johnson, a pediatric neurosurgeon, against Scottish Rite Hospital. The suit for malpractice claimed that Mr. Leibel failed to introduce evidence that would have shown there were issues of fact for a jury to decide in the discrimination action. In the malpractice case, Dr. Johnson called a legal expert, Peter Spanos, who testified that certain evidence “tipped the balance” of the underlying discrimination case in Dr. Johnson’s favor. The trial jury awarded Dr. Johnson $2 million. The trial court granted Mr. Leibel a new trial, but the appeals court reversed and upheld the $2 million jury award. The Court of Appeals held that the testimony was admissible due to the “legal complexities” of her discrimination case and was useful when a nonlawyer could not competently determine whether the negligence of the defendant lawyer proximately caused the plaintiff’s damages.
The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed, with Justice Melton saying “the second jury in the malpractice case is not deciding what the first jury would have done in the underlying case had the attorney not been negligent, but only what a reasonable jury would have done had the underlying case been tried without the attorney negligence alleged by the plaintiff.” The jury in the malpractice action needs to determine whether the plaintiff has a winning case, in other words, not whether some prior jury may or may not have believed the plaintiff had a winning case. In so holding, it disagreed with the appellate ruling concluding jurors could not resolve this issue without legal knowledge. Justice Melton wrote that it is inappropriate for the second jury to determine what the first jury would have done, but instead needs to decide the case on the merits.
If you or someone in your family needs legal assistance for a personal injury case, the experienced Atlanta injury attorneys at Sammons & Carpenter, PC can assist you. Choosing the right attorney to represent you is an important step in the process to avoid the issues raised in the Leibel case above. Call us today at 404-814-8949, or fill out our confidential online case evaluation form for a free consultation.
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