It is well-established that a client in legal malpractice shall have no greater rights against their attorney than they had against the original defendant. That is, until the recent decision by the Supreme Court in Ewing v. Westport Insurance Corporation, 20-00339 (LA. 11/19/20), 2020 WL 6789490 where the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the “collectibility“ of the underlying judgment against the defendant is neither part of the plaintiff’s burden of proof nor the proper subject of an affirmative defense.
In Ewing, the defendant/attorney fax-filed a petition for damages but failed to forward the original petition within seven days as required by statute. As a result, the claim he sought to advance on behalf of Elaine Ewing prescribed. Ewing sued her attorney and his insurer.
Prior to trial, the tortfeasor testified that he would have filed for bankruptcy had an excess judgment been entered. On this basis, the defendants obtained a motion for summary judgment establishing that the underlying tortfeasor would have been unable to pay any amount above the $30,000 in available insurance coverage. Following trial, an award of $30,000 was entered in favor of the plaintiff and the plaintiff appealed.
The appellate court reversed citing to the decision in Rodriguez v. Traylor, 468 So.2d 1186, 1188 (La. 1985) which held that “the wealth or poverty of a party to a lawsuit is not a proper consideration in the determination of compensatory damages.“
The Supreme Court upheld the appellate opinion. In the analysis, Chief Justice Johnson on behalf of the majority also cited to the Rodriguez decision for the proposition that the wealth of the tortfeasor is not relevant to damages. The majority acknowledged that a majority of courts nationwide hold that the collectibility of a judgment is an essential element of a plaintiff’s legal malpractice case. It also observed “a growing trend” in other states to allow the defendant/attorney to plead collectability as an affirmative defense. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in Ewing chose to follow neither position.
The defendants in Ewing did not argue that collectibility was part of the plaintiff’s burden. However, they did assert an affirmative defense on this basis. In rejecting this defense, the Ewing court found that nothing in statutory law of Louisiana limits damages based upon the collectibility of a judgment against a particular tortfeasor. In Ewing, it was established that the tortfeasor would have been immediately unable to pay an excess judgment. Nevertheless, the majority highlighted that a money judgment is valid for 10 years and may be revived for successive 10-year periods. As such, the court concluded that the money judgment has intrinsic value, regardless of immediate collectibility. To quote the majority, “impecunity is a snapshot in time.”
The concurring opinion by Justice Weimer reasons that there may be certain and rare cases where the underlying tortfeasor is truly judgment proof. In that circumstance, he writes that summary judgment in favor of the defendant may be appropriate but not under the record before the court.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Crain observed: “Thirty states have determined collectibility is relevant in a legal malpractice action. No state has reached a contrary conclusion, until now.” According to the majority, the absence of any statute making collectability a relevant consideration mandated the result under our civilian traditions. Justice Crain disagreed and argued that the majority opinion is inconsistent with the Code of Evidence articles which generally allow the admissibility of relevant evidence such as an inability to pay. La. L.C.E. art. 402. In support of his position, Justice Crain gave a hypothetical scenario involving an insolvent, uninsured driver who rear-ends a world-class professional athlete rendering him a paraplegic, resulting in damages and $50 million. About this hypothetical, he states:
“What did the plaintiff lose, or what harm did the lawyer cause the plaintiff, when the lawyer failed to preserve the claim against the insolvent, uninsured driver? The lawyer did not cause the paraplegia, nor did he caused a loss of $50 million, as that money was clearly uncollectible.“
To Justice Crain, the determinative question is the value of the lost judgment.
Insofar as the majority and concurring opinions highlight the absence of any statutes to support their conclusions, it would not be surprising for this issue to be considered by the legislature in coming years.
Collin is a Keogh Cox partner who litigates injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all too active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.
This blog was written in partnership with Andrew “Drew” Blanchfield whose practice also includes professional liability defense.