Certain Client Behaviors Provide a Defense to Legal Malpractice
In some situations, the client’s conduct may provide (or contribute to) a lawyer’s defenses in a malpractice case. While “blaming the client” may feel unfair to some people (especially clients), there are situations where the client’s behavior legitimately excuses or contributes to the lawyer’s negligence in ways that create a partial (or complete) defense for the defendant lawyer. Let’s look at a few:
1. Negligence on the Part of the Client.
When the client also commits negligence, and where the client’s negligence contributes to the damages suffered in a significant way, an attorney can often claim the client’s negligence as a defense to legal malpractice (at least in certain cases). The client’s contributory negligence may reduce the amount of damages attributable to–and payable by–the lawyer.
Examples of client negligence might include withholding important information from the attorney, acting contrary to legal advice, or failing to comply with a legal obligation or act in a reasonably expected manner.
2. Client Fraud.
Where the client intentionally defrauds or misleads the attorney, and the attorney’ relies on fraudulent or intentionally misleading information (resulting in malpractice), the attorney may be able to claim the client’s fraud as a defense. As with all other client-related defenses, this is highly fact-specific, and (as with other fraud claims) the attorney’s reliance must have been reasonable under the circumstances.
3. “Unclean Hands” & Other Legally-Recognized Client Misconduct.
The client’s unclean hands or other misconduct (for example, spoliation of evidence) must relate directly to the representation or transaction which forms the basis of the malpractice suit.
However, the client’s misconduct provides a potential defense to the lawyer only where the client’s actions were not taken on the advice of the lawyer. In other words: a lawyer cannot avoid malpractice liability based on a client’s actions when the lawyer told the client to take those actions in the first place. Clients are legally permitted to rely on an attorney’s advice, and the lawyer cannot thereafter use that reliance as a defense if the actions (s)he advised the client to take were actually illegal.
Defenses based on a client’s actions are tricky, and depend on sophisticated legal analysis. Some lawyers may try to “blame the client” even when no true defense exists, especially when facing a malpractice claim. Don’t let a lawyer intimidate or threaten you into surrendering your legal rights. Always consult an independent attorney for a personalized review of your situation and potential legal rights before signing any settlement or agreeing to compromise a claim.
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Legal claims against lawyers or other third parties are a complicated topic. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who failed to provide you with competent representation, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.