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Emotional Distress in Legal Malpractice Cases


Some lawsuits, and some types of claims, allow a plaintiff to recover (or attempt to recover) damages to compensate for emotional distress (and resulting injuries) suffered as a result of a defendant’s wrongful conduct. The general rule in California is that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable against attorneys in legal malpractice actions where the plaintiff suffered only economic losses or property damage.

Many injured plaintiffs suffer stress and distress as a result of losing a lawsuit, particularly when they learn the attorney committed professional negligence. This distress may cause anxiety, depression, or even (in some cases) physical symptoms.

Although emotional distress is not normally a recoverable form of damages in a legal malpractice actions, clients who suffer significant emotional distress as a result of a lawyer’s negligent or willful misconduct should consult an expert to determine whether the distress–and the circumstances that caused it–are significant enough to qualify for the exception to the rule.



Damages for emotional distress may be recoverable in a legal malpractice action if:

1.  The plaintiff’s emotional distress was a natural consequence of the attorney’s wrongful and negligent conduct; and

2. The plaintiff’s emotional distress was not an “inevitable consequence” of economic damages/loss of money.

Where the lawyer’s wrongful actions go beyond “mere negligence” or cause the plaintiff more than economic injury–normally meaning, the plaintiff suffers some physical harm–the plaintiff may be able to claim damages for emotional distress. Typically, the emotional distress required to support this kind of award must have some physical manifestation or symptoms.

In at least one case, California courts awarded a prevailing plaintiff damages for emotional distress resulting from conviction and imprisonment that resulted from the attorney’s negligent handling of the plaintiff client’s case. (See: Holliday v. Jones (1989) 215 CA3d 102, 114–119, 264 CR 448, 455–458)

Plaintiffs should never attempt to evaluate their emotional distress, or whether it will support a recovery of damages, on their own. Always consult an experienced malpractice attorney and obtain an individual review of your personal legal rights and potential claims–including (and especially) in situations where an attorney caused you significant emotional distress or harm.


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.

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