New York Appellate Court Awards Damages for Legal Malpractice Arising from Criminal Conviction

An appellate court in New York held that a criminal defendant was entitled to compensatory damages against his attorney arising from negligent representation during his criminal trial. In Dombrowski v. Bulson, the client was convicted of two felonies and a misdemeanor and sentenced to four years in prison. An appeal followed, which resulted five years later in a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. Since the defendant had completed his sentence, the prosecution elected not to retry the case.

The defendant then filed a legal malpractice action against the attorney, seeking compensation for emotional injuries arising from his incarceration. The trial court granted summary judgment for the attorney, based on a finding that a plaintiff could not recover non-pecuniary damages in a legal malpractice case.

The appellate court reversed in part, modifying the judgment entered by the lower court, and finding that the client was entitled to emotional damages only. The court reasoned that a party should be liable for the “natural and proximate cause” of his/her negligence and it is foreseeable that an attorney’s negligent conduct might lead to his/her client’s imprisonment. The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

Decision: Dombrowski v. Bulson


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