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Law firm had no duty after terminating its representation of plaintiff.

Where defendant law firm terminated its representation of plaintiff five months before the statute of limitations on any of plaintiff’s claims related to a car accident expired, summary judgment for defendant based on a lack of duty was affirmed. In Finley v. Wettermark Keith, LLC, No. E2020-01081-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 6, 2021), plaintiff hired defendant law firm to represent him after he was involved in a car accident. The attorney-client agreement stated that defendant “had agreed to handle all claims against ‘all responsible parties’ arising out of the accident.” Defendant negotiated an $1,800 settlement with the other driver’s insurance company, to which defendant alleged that plaintiff agreed, but plaintiff refused to sign the settlement release. Defendant thereafter terminated its representation of plaintiff, and defendant sent plaintiff a letter confirming the termination of representation and “encouraging him to seek the advice of another attorney concerning his case before expiration of the applicable time limitation.” When defendant stopped representing plaintiff, five months remained before the statute of limitations for the car accident claims would expire.

After the statute of limitations for the car accident claims had passed, plaintiff filed this legal malpractice action pro se. Plaintiff “asserted that [defendant] had failed to file suit against General Motors Company within the applicable statute of limitations” for injuries caused by airbags in his car. Defendant responded, stating that it never agreed to file suit against General Motors, that it did not handle air bag cases, that it negotiated a settlement that was then refused by plaintiff, and that it terminated its representation of plaintiff while he still had five months remaining to file suit in the underlying case. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted summary judgment for defendant, holding that any duty defendant had ceased when it terminated its representation of plaintiff. The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

To make a claim for legal malpractice, a plaintiff must prove five elements, one of which is “a duty owed by the lawyer.” (internal citation omitted). Plaintiff did not dispute that defendant sent him a letter terminating its representation of him, and the Court found this dispositive of the case. The Court explained:

[Plaintiff’s] legal malpractice claim fails because [defendant] has negated the first element of a legal malpractice claim—[defendant] has shown that it no longer owed a duty to [plaintiff], having terminated its representation of him in March 2019. Again, this is a fact that [plaintiff] has not disputed. Moreover, because no continuing duty was owed to [plaintiff], there could likewise be no breach of that duty.

The Court of Appeals also ruled that plaintiff could not show “a causal connection between [defendant’s] alleged negligence and his injury.” (internal citation omitted). Because defendant ceased representing plaintiff five months before the limitations period ran and “advised [plaintiff] by letter to seek other counsel and to be mindful of the time limitation applicable to his claim,” defendant did not cause plaintiff any injury here. Instead, the Court stated that plaintiff’s “inaction following the termination of [defendant’s] representation is the sole cause of any damages he may have experienced because his accident claim became time-barred.” Summary judgment was accordingly affirmed.

The facts of this case were not on plaintiff’s side. Defendant law firm covered its bases by terminating representation well ahead of the expiration of the statute of limitations and communicating in writing that plaintiff should be aware of the limitations period, and plaintiff could therefore not prove the elements of his legal malpractice claim.

NOTE: This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.

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