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Punitive Damages in Legal Malpractice Actions

WHAT ARE PUNITIVE DAMAGES?

Punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant for wrongful conduct and to deter future, similar conduct by the defendant and others.

Punitive damages are a form of legal award designed to punish people who willfully commit wrongful acts that infringe the rights of another.

Although there are standards regulating the amount of punitive damages a court can award, punitive damages are not generally tied to the plaintiff’s losses or to the defendant’s gains. Instead, they are designed to act as a punishment.

Because of this, punitive damages are not available in many cases. Courts rarely award punitive damages in legal malpractice cases, and do so only in specific circumstances. 

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“LOST PUNITIVE DAMAGES” AGAINST THIRD PARTIES CANNOT BE RECOVERED IN LEGAL MALPRACTICE ACTIONS

In cases where the attorney’s negligent (or deliberately wrongful) conduct resulted in the client losing an award of punitive damages against a third party, those punitive damages cannot be recovered in a malpractice action against the attorney. Lost punitive damages are not part of the “measurable damages” the client can (and must) prove as part of the malpractice action.

Courts refuse to allow plaintiffs to recover “lost punitive damages” as part of the measurable damages sought against their former attorneys because of the purpose behind a punitive damage award. If the client could have sought punitive damages against the defendant in the underlying action which gave rise to the lawyer’s malpractice, those damages would have represented a punishment against the original defendant.

Although the attorney’s malpractice may have caused the loss of those damages, it isn’t fair to force the lawyer (even if he or she committed malpractice) to bear a punishment designed to influence the conduct of a different defendant. Moreover, shifting the punitive damages to the lawyer would do nothing to deter the original wrongdoer from engaging in similar conduct in the future. If anything, it might make him (or her) more inclined to bad behavior, because a lawyer was forced to pay the penalty the last time.

 COURTS CAN AWARD PUNITIVE DAMAGES AGAINST THE ATTORNEY IN A MALPRACTICE ACTION

Where the attorney engaged in willfully malicious, fraudulent, or oppressive conduct, and the other elements of a claim for punitive damages are met, a court can award punitive damages against an attorney in a malpractice action.

This is different than allowing a (former) client to recover damages the client might have recovered against a third party defendant. Where the claim for punitive damages is brought directly against the attorney, based on the attorney’s own conduct, the purpose of punitive damages–to punish and deter–can be achieved.

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CONSULT A LICENSED SPECIALIST TO DETERMINE WHAT DAMAGES MIGHT BE AVAILABLE IN YOUR CASE

The amount and type of damages available to plaintiffs varies widely by jurisdiction and depending on the facts of a given case. You may – or may not have a claim for punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages, and possibly other rights as well.

In order to preserve your rights–and ensure that you don’t lose them–it’s important to consult a licensed specialist in malpractice actions promptly.

Never use this or any other Internet article or website as an evaluation of your personal claims or situation. Always obtain professional, experienced legal help from a licensed attorney.

 

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