Vincent v. DeVries, 2013 VT 34, Case No. 2012-026: Supreme Court of Vermont Affirms Economic Damage Award in Legal Malpractice Case

The Supreme Court of Vermont has affirmed an economic damage award in a legal malpractice action. In Vincent v. DeVries, a client and his sister contracted to sell their home for $52,000 to buyers. Shortly before the scheduled closing, the sister died and the client refused to go forward with the sale. The buyers then sued the client seeking specific performance of the contract. The client hired an attorney to defend him in the action.

Instead of responding to the complaint, the attorney moved for summary judgment. The buyers made their own motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The attorney then filed an answer to the complaint and a series of motions seeking relief from the judgment alleging that the client was fraudulently induced into signing the contract. However, the trial court enforced the judgment finding that the client was precluded from raising new legal issues after judgment had entered.

The client then terminated the attorney. He eventually entered into a settlement agreement with the buyers, which allowed him to keep his home in exchange for a payment of $103,000, which included the buyers’ attorney’s fees incurred to prosecute the case. The client then sued the attorney for legal malpractice alleging that he negligently failed to raise appropriate defenses and counterclaims to the buyers’ suit.

After a jury trial on the issues of causation and damages, the jury returned a verdict for the client and awarded him economic damages of $103,000, representing the settlement amount. The attorney appealed.

The appeals court affirmed. When a damage award in a malpractice case is based on the difference between a settlement amount and the amount that would have been reached without malpractice, the settlement must be reasonable. The court found that the jury properly concluded that the settlement amount was reasonable because it avoided the cost of relocation for the elderly client and of appealing the judgment.

The jury had also awarded emotional damages in the amount of $80,000. The appellate court reversed this ruling, because absent physical harm or emotional stress as the result of a substantial bodily injury, emotional damages are not appropriate.

Decision: Vincent v. DeVries
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