The defendant law firm was found to have negligently prepared a commercial litigation matter for trial. The plaintiff argued that it would have been able to recover punitive damages in the underlying case had it not been dismissed because of the law firm’s negligence and therefore should be able to recover them in the second case.
The Illinois Court of Appeals agreed, stating that “we believe the proper focus of our analysis to be what would make the plaintiff whole with respect to the defendant attorney’s negligence. When, as in this case, a jury has determined that the plaintiff would have been entitled to punitive damages but for the negligence of the attorney, then such damages must be recoverable in order for the plaintiff to be made whole. We note that this result is consistent with the general principle in this state that ‘[a] legal malpractice plaintiff is entitled to recover those sums which would have been recovered if the underlying suit had been successfully prosecuted.'” [citation omitted].
The court then affirmed a jury verdict including over $1,100,000 in punitive damges. Read the opinion by clicking here.
The court opinion references opinions from around the country that reach results consistent with and opposite to the opinion in this case.
The court also allowed the plaintiff to recover from the defendant law firm those attorneys’ fees and costs that it could have recovered against the defendant bank in the underlying action.
This is one of those opinions that will keep you awake at night. One of the major issues here is that the defendant law firm took over the case from the original law firm shortly before trial after significant work had been done on the case. The opinion reminds us that (a) getting involved in a case after someone else has done substantial work on it is fraught with danger; and (b) you will have difficulty finding someone to take on a case after you have done substantial work on it so do not hesitate to seek help early.