The Massachusetts Appeals Court has reversed and remanded an Essex Superior Court legal malpractice case. The attorney represented the Plaintiff, who was injured while dismatling a Light Tower twelve miles offshore in New York harbor. The Plaintiff suffered a severe brain injury when a loading platform where he was working separated from the tower and fell to ocean floor about 120 feet down. The worker was encased in the platform until it hit a leg of the tower, rolled and released him. Workers on the surface reported that he was underwater for several minutes before resurfacing, unconscious, but breathing. Workers dove in the water and brought him onto a barge, where he was revived.
The worker had hired a Gloucester maritime and workers’ compensation firm, which settled his worker’s compensation claim for only $7,500, and then pursued a Jones Act negligence suit in Federal Court against his employer and others. The attorneys’ had claimed the case had an estimated value of $1 million in court papers. Defendants in that case had argued that the worker’s compensation settlement precluded the Federal claim.
The case settled at a court-assisted mediation for only $200,000, after the attorneys told the client that he would lose if he went to trial. The attorneys had admittedly failed to advise the Plaintiff that the worker’s compensation settlement might compromise his Jones Act claim. The worker then sued his attorneys, claiming that they had negligently settled the workers’ compensation claim without disclosing the risks associated with that settlement, and then compelled him to settle the Federal claim to cover up their errors. A superior court judge dismissed the malpractice claim on the eve of trial, resulting in the appeal.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case to the Superior Court for trial. They reasoned that the law regarding the preclusive effect of the settlement of a workers’ compensation claim was unsettled at the time and therefore mandated that the attorneys inform the client of the risks of settlement, and that the failure to advise the client was a breach of their duty.
The Appeals Court then determined that the trial judge had erroneously ruled that the workers’ compensation settlement was not a ‘final adjudication’ of that case, and made other errors regarding (a) the proof necesary to put the claims before a jury, and (b) the necessity of expert witness testimony regarding the reasonable settlement value of the case.
The case will now go forward, presumably to a jury trial on the merits. The client looks forward to his day in Court, still represented by his legal counsel, legal malpractice lawyer, The attorney.