California Court Holds Legal Malpractice Action Was Properly Dismissed

An appellate court in California has upheld a trial court’s dismissal of a legal malpractice case because the former client was unable to prove the attorney’s negligence caused her damages. In Bye v. Cooper, a woman was injured after she tripped and fell on a sidewalk at her apartment complex. The difference in height between the two slabs of sidewalk, which allegedly caused her fall, was only 1.25 inches. She hired an attorney to bring a personal injury claim against the property owner. The court awarded the woman $85,000 at a judicial arbitration, but on the advice of her attorney, she rejected the award. The attorney eventually dismissed the case after receiving the client’s consent.

The client then filed a legal malpractice action against her former attorney claiming he negligently advised her to reject the arbitration award. The attorney moved for summary judgment arguing that his alleged negligence did not cause her loss, because the woman would not have prevailed at trial in the personal injury case. The attorney asserted the trivial defect doctrine, which precludes recovery against property owners for injuries caused by insignificant defects. Agreeing that 1.25 variance in the sidewalk was trivial, the trial court granted the attorney’s motion.

The client also argued at the summary judgment hearing that failing to advise her of the trivial defect doctrine was further evidence of her attorney’s negligence. However, the woman never alleged this in her complaint, which the trial court ruled was a bar to alleging these facts at the summary judgment hearing. The court also denied her request to amend her complaint to include these additional facts. The woman appealed. The appellate court upheld both lower court rulings, reasoning that the woman had known that her attorney would argue the trivial defect doctrine after he had filed his summary judgment motion, but unjustifiably failed to seek to amend her complaint until the summary judgment hearing, two months later.

Decision: Bye v. Cooper

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