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When Does a Lawyer Owe a Duty of Care to Non-Clients?

GENERALLY, ATTORNEYS OWE NO PROFESSIONAL DUTY TO NON-CLIENTS.

The general rule in California (and elsewhere) is that while attorneys owe a professional duty to their clients, and may be held legally liable for a breach of that duty, attorneys owe no such duty to people and entities they do not represent. Since duty is a mandatory element of a claim for legal malpractice, this rule means that generally speaking, non-clients cannot sue attorneys for malpractice.

An attorney-client relationship is generally considered a mandatory element of a legal malpractice claim. However, there are some cases where an attorney can be held liable to a non-client for the attorney’s malpractice or breach of professional duty. These cases are not the norm; however,  in some limited situations, California law and policy overlook the lack of contract privity where other considerations weigh in favor of attorney liability.

ATTORNEYS MAY BE HELD LIABLE WHERE THE FORESEEABILITY OF HARM TO THE NON-CLIENT PLAINTIFF OUTWEIGHS THE POLICIES SUPPORTING THE GENERAL RULE OF NON-LIABILITY.

In some cases, where the foreseeability of harm to non-clients is high enough to outweigh the public policy supporting the limitation of legal malpractice liability to the attorney’s own clients, the law may permit non-clients to bring a claim for professional malfeasance. However, these cases are rare and highly fact-specific. If you believe this situation applies to you, consult an experienced legal malpractice specialist immediately for an evaluation of your legal rights.

ATTORNEYS MAY BE HELD LIABLE FOR MALPRACTICE WHERE THE CLAIMANT WAS AN INTENDED BENEFICIARY OF THE ATTORNEY’S SERVICES.

Where a person (or entity) is an intended beneficiary of the attorney’s legal services or representation, it makes sense to permit those persons to bring malpractice claims if the attorney breaches the proper standard of care in the course of rendering services. Intended beneficiaries of legal services are generally known to the attorney (indirectly if not personally), and the attorney presumably knows of their reliance upon his or her professional conduct. Thus, it makes sense to hold the lawyer liable to these intended beneficiaries for breaches of professional duty.

However, attorneys owe this duty only to “intended beneficiaries” of the legal services. No such duty is owed to incidental beneficiaries–people or entities who may benefit from the representation but who were not intended to be beneficiaries of the lawyer’s services and expertise.

WHAT FACTORS DO COURTS CONSIDER WHEN EVALUATING LEGAL MALPRACTICE CLAIMS BY NON-CLIENT PLAINTIFFS?

When evaluating legal malpractice claims brought by non-client plaintiffs under one or more of the exceptions to the general rule, courts will consider the following factors:

— The foreseeability of harm to the claimant.

— The extent of the claimant’s injury, and the degree of certainty with which the evidence proves the injury was caused by the lawyer’s professional negligence (malpractice).

— Whether the attorney’s representation, legal advice, or professional actions were intended (or expected) to benefit the claimant.

— The connections, and the strength or closeness of the connections, between the attorney’s actions and the claimant’s injury.

— Whether, and to what degree, the attorney’s conduct was “blameworthy” or morally inappropriate.

— Whether holding the attorney liable to this claimant would interfere with a duty the attorney owed to the client in the relevant matter.

— Public policy considerations.

These factors are clearly very broad, and also highly fact-specific. Liability to non-clients is a technical question that requires analysis of the potential claimant’s actual situation, injury, and other facts as well as applicable law. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney (yours or someone else’s) contact an experience malpractice attorney and arrange for a consultation promptly. Delay could injure, or even cost you, your legal rights.

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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 article like 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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