Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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In December 1995, Teresa Schmidt slipped and fell while visiting a Tacoma grocery store. She retained Timothy Coogan to represent her in a claim against the store. Just days before the statute of limitations ran, Coogan filed a complaint naming the wrong defendant. He subsequently filed two amended complaints, but the trial court dismissed the case as barred by the statute of limitations. Schmidt filed a complaint against Coogan, asserting claims for negligence and breach of contract. The case went to trial in November 2003, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Schmidt and granted recovery for past economic and noneconomic damages. The trial court granted a new trial on the issue of damages only, finding that Coogan was denied a fair trial: Schmidt's counsel gave an improper closing argument, and the damages were so excessive as to unmistakably indicate that the verdict was the result of passion and prejudice. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's order granting a new trial. In 2010, Schmidt moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a claim for outrage/reckless infliction of emotional distress, alleging that Coogan harassed, intimidated, and belittled her when she raised the problem of the statute of limitations before it expired. In the 2003 trial, the jury was instructed to determine general damages arising out of Coogan's conduct and malpractice. In the second trial, however, Coogan challenged the availability of general damages in legal malpractice cases. Because her counsel could not find settled authority either affirming or denying the availability of emotional distress damages in Washington, Schmidt sought to add a claim that encompassed the damages. The trial court denied Schmidt's motion to amend. Schmidt also filed a motion for summary judgment on the availability of general damages and a motion in limine. The court denied both motions. After Schmidt rested her case in the damages-only trial, Coogan moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that collectibility was an essential element of legal malpractice and that Schmidt presented no evidence that a judgment against Grocery Outlet would have been collectible. The court denied the motion, and the jury again returned a verdict in favor of Schmidt. Coogan appealed the jury verdict, and Schmidt cross appealed on the ground that general damages are available in attorney malpractice claims and that the trial court erred in denying her motion to amend the complaint. The Court of Appeals concluded that collectibility was an essential component of damages that Schmidt failed to prove, and it reversed the trial court's denial of Coogan's motion. This case presented two issues of first impression for the Supreme Court: (1) whether the elements of legal malpractice include the collectibility of an underlying judgment; and (2) whether emotional distress damages are available in legal malpractice cases. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirm the trial court's judgment, holding that the uncollectibility of an underlying judgment is an affirmative defense to legal malpractice that defendant-attorneys must plead and prove. Furthermore, the Court held that the trial court properly denied emotional distress damages because Coogan's actions were not particularly egregious, nor was the subject matter personal. View "Schmidt v. Coogan" on Justia Law

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The Certified Professional Guardianship Board (Board) has petitioned the Supreme Court to suspend guardian Lori Petersen for actions stemming from her guardianship of D.S. and J.S. Petersen has been a certified professional guardian since 2001. She owned and operated Empire Care and Guardianship, a large agency serving over 60 wards. From December 2009 until April 2010, the Board received a number of grievances and complaints regarding Petersen's treatment of three wards who were all, at one point, housed at Peterson Place, an adult family home. Petersen contended that suspension was improper and suggested:(1) the Board ran afoul of separation of powers principles; (2) violated the appearance of fairness doctrine; (3) impermissibly lowered the evidentiary standard; and (4) failed to consider the proportionality of the sanction. The Supreme Court agreed with Petersen as to her last contention: "She has questioned, albeit obliquely, the proportionality of the sanction, and so the Board should have considered the sanction's magnitude relative to those imposed in other cases. Accordingly, we remand to the Board to conduct a consistency analysis pursuant to its internal regulations" and the Court's opinion. View "In re Disciplinary Proceeding Against Petersen" on Justia Law

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Stewart Title Guaranty Company hired the law firm Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, PS to defend its insured, Sterling Savings Bank, from a claim of lien priority on real property by a construction company. The claim was resolved in favor of the construction company, and Stewart Title sued the firm for malpractice. Witherspoon moved for summary judgment arguing it owed a duty to the client Sterling Bank and not Stewart Title, and that the alleged malfeasance (not arguing equitable subrogation) was not a viable argument in the lien priority suit. The trial court ruled against Witherspoon on the first, no-duty, ground but agreed with it on the second, no-breach, ground. The court therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Witherspoon. Stewart Title appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court in dismissing Stewart Title's malpractice case on the basis that Witherspoon owed Stewart Title no duty. The Court did not address the subrogation issue. View "Stewart Title Guar. Co. v. Sterling Sav. Bank" on Justia Law

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Chicago Title Insurance Company (CTIC) appointed Land Title Insurance Company as its agent for the purpose of soliciting and effectuating CTIC's insurance policies. Land Title violated the anti-inducement laws. The Supreme Court held that CTIC was responsible for Land Title's regulatory violations, pursuant to statutory and common-law theories of agency. "When the statute forbids the insurer or its agent from certain conduct, it means that the insurer may not do indirectly-through its agent-what it may not do directly." View "Chi. Title Ins. Co. v. Office of Ins. Comm'r" on Justia Law

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While employed as a physician at Quincy Valley Medical Center (QVMC), Gaston Cornu-Labat was the subject of several complaints that raised doubts as to his competency to practice medicine. QVMC conducted two investigations that ended after the charges against Dr. Cornu-Labat were not substantiated. Nevertheless, QVMC requested that Dr. Comu-Labat be psychologically evaluated and ended the doctor's employment when he failed to consult the recommended provider. Dr. Cornu-Labat filed a Public Records Act (PRA) request asking for records related to the hospital's investigations. QVMC claimed the documents were exempt from disclosure. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Cornu-Labat, holding none of the PRA exemptions invoked by QVMC applied. The court concluded that the records of a peer review committee that contained nonphysicians could not qualify for the exemption. Upon review, the Supreme Court determined that was error. The Court remanded because questions of material fact remained as to whether the records at issue were prepared for a regularly constituted peer review body. Further, questions remained as to whether any records were generated during a confidential meeting of agents of the QVMC board concerning Dr. Cornu-Labat's clinical or staff privileges. View "Cornu-Labat v. Hosp. Dist. No. 2 of Grant County" on Justia Law

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Petitioners Albert Ugas and Daniel Fishburn filed a recall petition against Respondent Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, charging him with misfeasance and/or malfeasance and breach of his oath of office. Petitioners alleged that Mr. Lindquist failed to investigate alleged corruption and falsification of records by a former county assessor-treasurer. Additionally, Petitioners contended that Mr. Lindquist obstructed justice by deterring law enforcement from investigating the assessor-treasurer. The lower court dismissed Petitioners' affidavit of prejudice and held that the recall petition was legally and factually insufficient. The court awarded Mr. Lindquist $50,000 in attorney fees for Petitioners' intentionally filing a frivolous recall petition in bad faith. Petitioners argued on appeal that their recall petition was legally and factually sufficient and that they should not have been ordered to pay attorney fees. Upon review of the petition and the applicable legal authority, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. View "In re Recall of Lindquist" on Justia Law