Wood v. Hollingsworth, 166, N.C. App 637, 603 S.E.2d 388 (2004)

NC: Underlying Personal Injury Claim

Student Contributor: Vanessa L. Wachira

Facts: After sustaining injuries in an automobile accident on March 8, 1997, Client retained the services of Barbara Hollingsworth (Attorney).  In December 1999 Client instructed Attorney to file suit against the other driver.  In February 2000, Attorney informed Client that her office would be closing and advised her to seek other counsel.  Accordingly, Client terminated Attorney’s services.  After retaining new counsel on April 4, 2000, Client was informed that no lawsuit had been filed on her behalf. The statute of limitations on Client’s personal injury claim had run on March 8, 2000.  Client brought a malpractice action against Attorney, alleging that she failed to exercise reasonable care and diligence, failed to keep her informed as to the status of her case and failed to provide legal services in accordance with the standards of the practice.  The trial court dismissed the action, holding that Client failed to state a claim.

Issue: Was Client’s claim for negligence in legal representation properly dismissed for its failure to state a claim because no attorney-client relationship existed at the time of the injury?

Ruling: No.  In NC, an attorney will be liable for injuries sustained by her client that are a result of her failure to act with the reasonable care and diligence required by someone of her profession.  These acts include a duty to keep her client informed as to the status of her case.  Here, because Client’s complaint listed specific actions and inactions of her attorney that revealed Attorney’s failure to comply with the standards of her profession, Client’s complaint sufficiently stated a claim for malpractice.  Although the attorney-client relationship ended approximately one month before the statute of limitations ran, privity was still present when the events that gave rise to her injury occurred.  The foreseeable of the injury and the inaction of Attorney were sufficient to establish proximate cause. 

Lesson: In an action for malpractice predicated upon a former-Attorney’s failure to comply with the statute of limitations, it is important to remember that the acts that give rise to the injury sustained by the Client occur during the period in which the Attorney could have but failed to file the action and not on the date on which the statute of limitations runs.