The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Boulders at Escalante LLC v. Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti PC on Thursday, June 18, 2015.
Legal Malpractice—Negligence—Statute of Limitations —Legal or Proximate Causation—Case Within a Case.
Plaintiff is a real estate development company formed to develop townhomes in a subdivision in Durango. Defendant is a law firm that was hired to represent plaintiff in a lawsuit against it by its general contractor to foreclose the contractor’s mechanic’s lien. Defendant filed several compulsory counterclaims on behalf of plaintiff for breach of contract and negligence. Plaintiff was concerned the contractor would not be able to pay a judgment if plaintiff succeeded on the counterclaims and asked defendant to review the insurance policies it had obtained for the project to determine whether the policies would pay a judgment against the contractor.
In 2006, defendant told plaintiff there was $2 to $4 million of coverage to pay a judgment against the contractor. In 2009, after plaintiff had obtained new representation, plaintiff learned that the policies contained an exclusion precluding payment to plaintiff if it succeeded on its claims against the contractor. Plaintiff and the contractor eventually settled, dismissing the claims against each other with prejudice. No payments were made by either party.
In 2011, plaintiff filed this action, asserting defendant was negligent in incorrectly advising regarding the insurance coverage, leading to extensive losses, including legal fees and expenses in continuing the litigation. The jury found defendant was negligent and its negligence caused 82.5% of the damages suffered by plaintiff. Judgment entered for approximately $2.7 million, plus pre- and post-judgment interest.
On appeal, defendant argued the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations set forth in CRS § 13-80-102. Defendant argued that plaintiff’s claim accrued no later than February 2009, when plaintiff learned defendant’s advice regarding insurance coverage might be wrong, and the action wasn’t filed until April 1, 2011. The Court of Appeals disagreed. A cause of action for negligence accrues on the date both the injury and its cause are known or should have been known to the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable diligence. Under the circumstances here, the question of when plaintiff knew or should have known that the advice was incorrect and that it was injured by that advice was properly a question resolved by the jury.
Defendant argued that in a legal malpractice action based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove a case within a case; namely, that the claim underlying the malpractice action would have been successful but for the attorney’s negligence. The Court disagreed. Here, the claimed injury does not relate to the outcome of the underlying matter, and therefore plaintiff did not need to prove a case within a case.
Defendant challenged whether its negligence caused plaintiff’s damages. The Court determined that the evidence was sufficient to establish that plaintiff proved its malpractice claim for damages based on the legal expenses it incurred because of defendant’s incorrect advice. But for this advice, plaintiff would not have continued incurring legal expenses in an attempt to prove its counterclaims. However, plaintiff should not have recovered damages based on the business losses it sustained. As a matter of law, defendant’s advice regarding the insurance coverage was not the legal, or proximate, cause of plaintiff’s claimed business losses. Although defendant could have reasonably foreseen that plaintiff would make business decisions based on defendant’s advice, the actual harm plaintiff suffered because of those business decisions was not within the scope of the risk created by defendant’s negligence. The case was remanded for a new trial, limited to determining the amount of damages plaintiff incurred in continuing to pursue its counterclaims against the contractor after receiving incorrect advice from plaintiff.