Might The Expert Commit Legal Malpractice?
We were recently asked whether an Expert, testifying in a legal malpractice case can commit legal malpractice during testimony in the case. We discussed whether there was an attorney-client relationship, and whether "absolute immunity" for in-court testimony applied. Now, Levine v Harriton & Furrer, LLP ; 2012 NY Slip Op 01401 ; Appellate Division, Third Department discusses the same subject, this time for an engineer.
"Plaintiff, a licensed professional engineer, was retained to provide services in connection with a personal injury claim in the Court of Claims against the State of New York arising from an alleged highway defect. The claim was subsequently transferred to defendant, a law firm in the Village of Round Lake, Saratoga County, and plaintiff was again retained. The parties initially proceeded upon an oral agreement. In February 2006, plaintiff submitted a written retainer agreement to defendant setting forth a retainer fee and establishing hourly charges and fees, among other things. Defendant paid the retainer fee and, on the claimant's behalf, returned the agreement to plaintiff, without signature. Plaintiff subsequently provided services and submitted bills periodically to defendant. Defendant made payments through December 2007, when the trial was completed; thereafter, defendant made no further payments but did request continuing services, which plaintiff provided. In May 2008, the Court of Claims rendered a determination dismissing the claim upon the ground that negligence had not been proven. Plaintiff allegedly continued to submit invoices for payment of the outstanding balance due through October 2008, but received no response. After plaintiff's counsel contacted [*2]defendant, defendant responded in writing in November 2008, refusing to pay and alleging that the unfavorable determination of the claim had resulted from plaintiff's professional malpractice. "
"Defendant's objections were not primarily grounded in the particulars of the invoices; instead, the central contention is that the failure to pay for plaintiff's services was justified by his alleged malfeasance. However, this claim was not supported by an expert affidavit opining that plaintiff's services "deviated from accepted industry standards" and that this failure proximately caused the loss of the claimant's case (Columbus v Smith & Mahoney, 259 AD2d 857, 858 ; see Travelers Indem. Co. v Zeff Design, 60 AD3d 453, 455 ). Contrary to defendant's claim, the decision of the Court of Claims does not replace such an expert opinion. Although that court criticized some of plaintiff's methods, it made no finding as to his competence beyond the requisite assessment of the credibility of the conflicting expert opinions. The mere fact that the Court of Claims found plaintiff's opinions less credible than those of the opposing experts is insufficient to present a factual issue as to whether his performance was substandard; such determinations are necessarily made whenever the opinions of experts are in conflict. Further, the court explicitly stated that its determination was not based solely on credibility, but also on its factual conclusion that the subject accident was proximately caused by driver error, and not by a highway defect.