Rizzo v. Haines, 520 Pa. 484, 555 A.2d 58 (Penn. 1989)

PA Underlying med mal and personal injury cases

Student Contributor: Evan Michael Hess 

Facts: The clients retained the  attorney in a case arising from a medical malpractice  against a physician and hospital and a personal injury suit against the city of Philadelphia. The attorney did not seek to have the two suits joined, and reassured the clients that the medical malpractice case was still viable. The jury in the personal injury lawsuit returned a verdict for the clients.  The medical malpractice case was dismissed soon thereafter based upon a lack of evidence and that the personal injury suit had fully compensated the clients for the injuries sustained. The clients initiated the legal malpractice action alleging the attorney negligently settled the personal injury case, breached his fiduciary duties, and improperly accounted for costs and expenses. A bench trial was conducted, and the clients were awarded damages.

Issue: Was the trial court correct in finding in favor of the client that the attorney breached his professional duties, and were the damages awarded reasonable?

Ruling: The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that:

1) An attorney’s must communicate all settlement offers to clients;

2) Failure to investigate offers that were proposed constituted malpractice;

3) Aggrieved clients are entitled to recover as damages the difference between actual recovery and the amount they would have recovered if the attorney was not negligent; and

“The necessity of an attorney’s use of ordinary skill and knowledge extends to the conduct of settlement negotiations.”

Lesson: The attorney must fully communicate to his client all proposed settlement offers in addition to completing due diligence in investigations on the client’s behalf. If an attorney fails to perform her/his duties in accordance with the standard of professional care, they must make the client whole by paying the difference between what the client did receive and should have received in a settlement.