Can a Client Sue a Lawyer for Emotional Distress?
EMOTIONAL DISTRESS DAMAGES GENERALLY ARE NOT RECOVERABLE IN LEGAL MALPRACTICE ACTIONS
As a general rule, damages for legal malpractice do not include emotional distress if the client suffered only economic loss or property damages. This is because, under California law, lost property does not “naturally” lead to emotional distress. While it’s true that the loss of money or property can be distressing (and, perhaps, usually is!), there’s a difference between the emotional distress a client feels over the loss of money and the results of damage that impacts a person’s physical or mental health, or results in a loss of liberty. By law, the loss of property alone is not enough to support a claim for emotional distress in malpractice proceedings.
EXCEPTION: WHERE DISTRESS “NATURALLY RESULTS” FROM THE LAWYER’S ACTS
Although California law states clearly that emotional distress is not a natural and expected result of the loss of money, emotional distress damages sometimes are available in legal malpractice actions where the distress in question “naturally ensues” from the lawyer’s wrongful acts, or where the lawyer’s acts are so egregious that they transcend “mere negligence” or result in noneconomic injury–for example, a loss of liberty, or physical harm.
In one case, a lawyer used his legal services as a bargaining chip to obtain sexual favors from a client in a divorce proceeding; that conduct was deemed egregious and outrageous enough to support a claim for damages for emotional distress. (McDaniel v. Gile (1991) 230 CA3d 363, 281 CR 242.
Emotional distress damages also have been awarded when a lawyer’s wrongful conduct contributed to a client’s imprisonment. See: Holliday v. Jones (1989) 215 CA3d 102, 264 CR 448.
NOTE: EMOTIONAL DISTRESS DAMAGES IN MALPRACTICE CASES ARE SUBJECT TO PROP. 51 APPORTIONMENT
A California law called “Proposition 51” (named for the ballot initiative that became the law) says that Defendants in actions for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death are liable for “noneconomic damages” (including damages for emotional distress) on a pro rata basis, in proportion to their respective share of the fault (California Civil Code §§ 1431.2-1431.5)
Since legal malpractice actions that include primarily claims for emotional distress and physical damages are “personal injury” actions, the apportionment rule applies, which means that even if a lawyer is held liable for a client’s emotional distress, the percentage of damages awarded may be reduced if the lawyer was not 100% responsible for the damages.
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