Rathblott v. Levin, 697 F. Supp. 817 (D.C. N.J. 1988)

NJ Underlying Probate Action

Student Contributor: Christopher S. Henn

Facts: The decedent, an attorney, suffered esophageal cancer for ten years until his passing. During his final days he executed several wills with the aid of the defendant, a partner in the decedent’s law firm. The last will was unsuccessfully challenged by the decedent’s children from his former marriage against his wife.

The wife, who had been successful in the underlying probate action, alleged that the defendant had been negligent in preparing the wills by (1) failing to establish testamentary capacity, and (2) by choosing Florida as decedent’s domicile instead of New Jersey. Due to this alleged negligence, the plaintiff averred that she suffered expenses in defending the will contest that effectively nullified her husband’s estate.

On plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant’s primary defense was that he owed no duty to the plaintiff, since she had no attorney-client relationship with him.

Issue: Whether the lack of privity is a defense to a legal malpractice action?

Ruling: The United States District Court, District of New Jersey recognized that:

[a] defendant owes a duty of care to take reasonable measures to avoid the risk of causing economic damages…to particular plaintiffs…comprising an identifiable class with respect to whom defendant knows or has reason to know are likely to suffer such damages from its conduct.

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[There is no] valid legal difference between a plaintiff who loses the right to one-half of an estate and a plaintiff who loses one-half of an estate in protecting her rights. If either was caused by an attorney’s negligence in drafting, that attorney should be liable.

The Court qualified its holding to the facts of this particular case and provided:

The extent to which this opinion represents an expansion of the exception to the privity requirement stems wholly from the unusual facts in this case…

Lesson: If an attorney knows or should know that individuals other than his client will suffer damages as a result of his negligence on a particular matter, he may be held responsible for their losses despite the lack of an attorney-client relationship.