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Fishman v. Brooks

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
487 N.E.2d 1377 (1986)


Facts

Larimore Brooks (plaintiff) filed a legal malpractice action against attorney Irving Fishman (defendant) after Fishman negligently caused Brooks to settle a personal injury claim for an amount well below what Brooks would have obtained at trial. While riding his bicycle, Brooks was struck by a car and seriously injured. Thereafter, Fishman, who had not litigated a case in over a decade, made no effort to examine the vehicle that struck Brooks or to investigate what the driver had been doing immediately prior to hitting Brooks. Further, Fishman engaged in minimal discovery with the opposing party and, instead, relied primarily on information supplied by the negligent driver’s insurance company. Once the matter was set for trial, Fishman attempted to collaborate with another attorney experienced in litigation but the negotiations fell through when Fishman refused to evenly split his fee with the lawyer. Fishman did not know that the negligent driver’s insurance policy limit was $1 million. Instead, Fishman told Brooks that only $250,000 was available. Brooks rejected the offer. Shortly before trial, Fishman informed Brooks that he could not win the case. Thus, Brooks was forced to settle the matter for $160,000 knowing Fishman was unprepared to litigate the matter. At the trial on the legal malpractice claim, the original personal injury action was litigated in an effort to ascertain what damages Brooks could have received had the matter proceeded to trial. An experienced tort attorney and a claims adjuster testified that a fair settlement value for Brooks’s injury claim was between $400,000 and $500,000. The jury found Fishman negligent in handling Brooks’s personal injury action and assessed damages of $525,000. The trial judge entered judgment for Brooks and reduced his damages to reflect his 10 percent contributory fault in the personal injury suit, the amount of medical expenses paid from the settlement, and the amount Brooks personally received from the settlement. Fishman appealed. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted certiorari to review.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Wilkins, J.)

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