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When Does a Lawyer’s Negligence Cause Clients Harm?

The elements of attorney malpractice (professional negligence) include a breach of duty that causes legally recognized damages to a client (or, in some cases, an eligible non-client).

In order to prevail on a claim for legal malpractice, and recover damages from a negligent lawyer, the plaintiff must prove all elements of the malpractice claim … including “causation.”


“Causation” means that the lawyer’s error or omission was the legal cause of a plaintiff’s injuries or damages. While this is a somewhat circular definition, the meaning is fairly logical: lawyers are liable for malpractice only where the lawyer’s breach of duty, error, omission, or other wrongful conduct is legally responsible for the harm the client suffered. If the client suffers no harm, or if the harm resulted from a different cause, the attorney generally cannot be held liable for malpractice.


Generally, plaintiffs (and their lawyers) prove causation in legal malpractice actions by demonstrating, to a legally-acceptable standard of proof and with admissible evidence, that:

1. The lawyer’s negligence was an actual cause of the harm the plaintiff suffered (and, if other causes also existed, that the lawyer’s misconduct was a “concurrent, independent” cause of the damage); or

2. “But for” the lawyer’s wrongful act or omission, the harm plaintiff suffered would not have occurred.

Causation is normally an issue of fact, meaning that the jury gets to decide whether not the plaintiff introduced sufficient evidence to meet the required burden of proof. However, where the evidence is clear enough that “no reasonable person could hold otherwise” (either in favor of liability or in favor of finding the attorney not liable), the judge may decide the issue as a matter of law. In either case, the plaintiff must provide sufficient admissible evidence to meet the required burden of proving causation.


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. Malpractice (professional negligence) claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who represented you, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your personal rights and claims.

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