California Appellate Court Affirms Ruling on Expert Testimony in Legal Malpractice Action

An appellate court in California has affirmed a trial judge’s ruling on a jury instruction concerning expert testimony in a legal malpractice suit. In Theurer v. Kolodny & Anteau, a woman brought a negligence action against the law firm, which represented her in a divorce proceeding. A jury found in favor of the woman in the legal malpractice case, but failed to award the total amount of damages she was seeking.

During the divorce proceedings, her lawyer had neglected to finalize a stipulation regarding the value of the couple’s home. Because the value of the home increased by almost $200,000 during the legal proceedings, the woman was forced to pay much more to retain ownership of the home.

In the malpractice trial, an expert witness for the woman testified that her law firm’s conduct fell below the standard of care, the firm failed to challenge with its own expert. The woman claimed damages for the difference in value of the property, her expenses and she sought a reduction of $800,000 in legal fees charged by the firm, on the basis that the fees were “unreasonable or unnecessary.” The jury awarded her the difference in value of the property, but no other damages.

On appeal, the woman claimed the trial court had erred in failing to instruct the jury that uncontroverted expert testimony in a legal malpractice case is conclusive on the issue of liability. The appellate court disagreed, finding that although non-expert testimony cannot be controverted by non-experts, it was still within the province of the jury to accept or reject the expert testimony. The appellate court thus found that the jury had properly weighed the evidence and its findings on damages were consistent with the evidence, which it heard.

Decision: Theurer v. Kolodny & Anteau


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