Maine Supreme Court holds that competent expert testimony is required to prove causation in legal malpractice actions

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the March 21, 2017 opinion of the Maine Supreme Court which held that expert testimony that is not based on supporting facts in the record was insufficient to prove that a lawyer’s alleged negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury.  In addition, a “corrected affidavit” which contradicts the expert’s clear deposition testimony is insufficient.  The case is Brooks v. Lemieux, 2017 ME 55 (Maine Supreme Judicial Court March 21, 2017) and the opinion is here:

The former client/malpractice plaintiff in the underlying matter (Brooks) retained the lawyer/malpractice defendant (Lemieux) after he unsuccessfully grieved his termination from Bath Iron Works (BIW) and his failure to attend arbitration.  Brooks was a long-time union employee and, after the union voted not to assist Brooks to arbitrate his grievance, Brooks hired Lemieux.  In February 2007, Brooks filed a complaint against the union and BIW in federal district court for breach of the collective bargaining agreement and discrimination.

After the union and BIW moved for summary judgment, Lemieux failed to timely file opposing statements of material fact, and summary judgment was granted against Brooks. The magistrate granted the motion and noted that Lemieux had failed to cite to record evidence in the statement of facts refuting the opposing statement of facts, resulting in their admission.

Brooks then sued Lemieux for legal malpractice, alleging that the lawyer fell below the standard of care by failing to: (1) timely file responses to statements of material fact supporting summary judgment, (2) follow a local rule governing statements of fact, (3) obtain affidavits from witnesses and (4) conduct adequate discovery.

The trial court granted summary judgment in Lemieux ‘s favor in the malpractice matter, finding that Brooks had failed to prove causation because he failed to identify what evidence Lemieux should have cited, affidavits that he should have obtained, and what discovery he should have conducted.  This resulted in the fact-finder having to speculate as to any causal link between the alleged negligence and the injury, and failed to submit admissible expert testimony on causation.

The trial court refused to consider Brooks’ expert’s corrective affidavit on causation, which contradicted that expert’s earlier deposition testimony.  Relying on a Maine case, the trial court held that the contradictory affidavit could not create a disputed issue of material fact given the expert’s clear and unambiguous answers in the deposition testimony.

Brooks appealed and argued that (1) the trial court applied the incorrect malpractice standard, (2) expert testimony was not required, (3) causation presents a jury question, and (4) plaintiff’s expert’s affidavit established prima facie evidence of causation.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court Brooks found that Brooks failed to set  forth prima facie evidence of causation to support his claims, and that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Lemieux.  The opinion rejected the argument that an incorrect standard was applied since Lemieux did not fail to timely plead in the underlying case and cause Brooks’ opportunity before the fact-finder to be lost.  The opinion also found that there was insufficient expert testimony to establish that Brooks would have prevailed but for Lemieux’s alleged negligence since the expert’s deposition testimony and “corrected affidavit” created a clear contradiction, not merely a discrepancy.

According to the opinion, the trial court improperly refused to consider the contradictory affidavit; however, the error was harmless since the affidavit was deficient for summary judgment purposes. The affidavit also provided only conclusory statements that Lemieux breached the standard of care without citing to facts which connect the alleged negligence to the injury; therefore, without competent evidence of negligence, a fact-finder could only speculate about causation (which requires a showing that the plaintiff would have prevailed in the underlying litigation but for the defendant’s alleged negligence); therefore, the expert opinion was insufficient. Pursuant to the above, the opinion affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Lemieux.

Bottom line:  This opinion found that an expert retained by the plaintiff in a legal malpractice matter cannot provide a conclusory opinion that a lawyer failed to meet the standard of care but must cite “to facts which connect the alleged negligence to the injury.”  In addition, the “corrected affidavit” by an expert which contradicts the expert’s clear testimony in a deposition created a clear contradiction, not merely a discrepancy, and was inadequate to prove causation.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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