Intervening Proximate Cause Not a Defense in Recent Legal Malpractice Case
On December 12, 2005, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed a circuit court decision dismissing a legal malpractice complaint against a Chicago law firm. See Decision Here. After an accidental drowning of a young girl at a pool maintained by the Rockford School District, the girl's father retained the Clifford Law Offices to represent him and the girl's estate in a wrongful death action. Several months after being retained, an attorney from the Clifford Firm wrote a letter to the father informing him that the firm could no longer represent him and the estate. In the letter, the attorney incorrectly advised the client that the applicable statute of limitations was two years, when, in fact, it was only one year from the death of the little girl. Within one month of receiving the termination letter but before the one-year statue of limitations had run, the father consulted with another attorney about representing the family in the wrongful death action. Shortly thereafter, this second attorney declined to take the case. One month after the one-year statute of limitations expired but almost a full year before a two-year statute of limitations would have run, the father then consulted yet another attorney, who took the case and informed the father that his previous attorney (the Clifford Firm) may have committed malpractice in letting the statute of limitations expire.
During the appeal, the father argued that the circuit court erred when it dismissed his legal malpractice case because he reasonably relied on the advice in the Clifford Firm's letter that the applicable statute of limitations was two years, and that the advice was the proximate cause of his legal injuries. On the other hand, the Clifford Firm argued the dismissal was proper because the firm withdrew when the wrongful death action was still viable and that they should be absolved of liability because of the father's intervening consultation with the second lawyer (who refused to take the case) before the correct one-year statute of limitations had run. Additionally, they argued that the father did not reasonably rely on the firm's statute of limitations advice.
In reversing the circuit court, the Appellate Court found there was no superceding cause to defeat the Clifford Firm's liability as a matter of law, and that proximate cause in this case should be decided not as a matter of law, but by the trier of fact. See, Lopez v. Clifford Law Offices, et al.