Two Figures in the Picture: How an Old Legal Practice Might Solve the Puzzle of Lost Punitive Damages in Legal Malpractice

36 Pages Posted: 2 May 2014 Last revised: 29 Jan 2015

See all articles by John M. Bickers

John M. Bickers

Northern Kentucky University - Salmon P. Chase College of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2014

Abstract

When lawyers err, clients must pay the price. If a lawyer’s action, or inaction, prevents a client from succeeding in a lawsuit, the lawyer must pay the amount necessary to make the client whole. But what does it mean to make the client whole? A puzzle appears when a finder of fact in a legal malpractice case determines that punitive damages in the original lawsuit were appropriate. Punitive damages are not meant to restore the client to her original position. By definition, they are meant to punish the original defendant for the egregiousness of his conduct. The plaintiff receives them as a response to the lawsuit, but there is no necessary link between the plaintiff’s injury and the punitive damages.

Courts have responded to this situation by categorically awarding punitive damages or categorically rejecting them. Awarding courts have focused on the need to make the plaintiff whole; rejecting courts have emphasized the fact that the attorney’s simple negligence does not compel the award of punitive damages. Neither decision has any logical primacy. Indeed, like an optical illusion, one can look at the situation from two different perspectives and see two different outcomes.

This article reviews the arguments and counter-arguments about lawyer malpractice and punitive damages. It then suggests a policy solution parallel to that adopted by the medieval law of deodand. That system of forfeiture of inanimate objects blamed for human deaths had to account for cases in which the object no longer existed. In those cases, the law focused on the wrongdoing rather than the injury. In similar fashion, this article concludes that the best solution to the attorney malpractice and lost punitive damages problem is to focus on the original wrongdoer, and not transfer responsibility to the attorney.

Keywords: Legal Malpractice, Punitive Damages, Deodand

Suggested Citation

Bickers, John M., Two Figures in the Picture: How an Old Legal Practice Might Solve the Puzzle of Lost Punitive Damages in Legal Malpractice (November 1, 2014). North Illinois University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2431256 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2431256

John M. Bickers (Contact Author)

Northern Kentucky University - Salmon P. Chase College of Law ( email )

Nunn Hall
Highland Heights, KY 41099
United States

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