California Appellate Court Reverses Judgment in favor of Client in Legal Malpractice Case


A California appellate court has reversed a client’s judgment in legal malpractice action. In Williams v. Alden, a client sued his former attorney for negligence with respect to an action to recover a deposit in a real estate transaction. The client had entered into a contract to purchase of five residential units and paid $15,000 to an escrow agent as a down payment.

When the lender in the transaction discovered that two of units had been built without permits, it was unwilling to finance the purchase and the client forfeited his deposit. He then hired the attorney to attempt to recover the funds from the seller. The escrow agent, who was still holding the funds, intervened, which resulted in the attorney filing a direct count against him. The escrow agent successfully moved for judgment on the pleadings, which resulted in a $56,000 judgment against the client for his attorney’s fees. The client then sued his attorney, alleging his negligence in directly suing the escrow agent, which had resulted in the adverse judgment.

When the case came on for trial by a jury, the attorney had neglected to deposit jury costs into the court, which was required at least 25 days before trial. The trial judge determined that the attorney had thereby waived his right to a jury trial and dismissed the assembled jury. The case was tried to the judge, who gave a judgment in favor of the client. The attorney appealed, alleging that it was an abuse of discretion for the judge to have dismissed the jury.

The appellate court agreed. It reversed the judgment, reasoning that the attorney’s failure to deposit funds constituted a waiver, but the trial court nonetheless should have conducted a jury trial because there was no apparent prejudice to the opposing party or the court. The appellate court considered the fact that the attorney was ready to deposit the money on the day of trial, the client had prepared for a jury trial up to that point, and the jury had already been assembled. The court remanded the case for a new trial.

Decision: Williams v. Alden

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