Just Too Speculative For A Successful Legal Malpractice Case

Albany:  Even when plaintiff points out a mistake that an attorney "unfamiliar with the Board's apportionment doctrine" made  at the Workers' Compensation hearing his argument that the Board would have found differently was "too speculative."  Result?  Case dismissed.

"Plaintiff received workers' compensation benefits as a result of a strained hip he sustained in the course of his employment. When his long-standing orthopedic surgeon, who had previously diagnosed him with osteoarthiritis of the hip, concluded that the work-related injury was fully resolved and any remaining symptoms were solely related to the preexisting condition, the State Insurance Fund (hereinafter SIF) requested that his benefits be suspended. Plaintiff then retained defendant to represent him and, on defendant's advice, plaintiff went to see another orthopedic surgeon, who attributed 50% of plaintiff's disability to the work-related injury. At a conciliation hearing, defendant negotiated a settlement with a representative from SIF whereby plaintiff agreed to benefits based upon a temporary, marked disability apportioned 50% to the work-related injury.

Even assuming that defendant was negligent because he was unfamiliar with the Board's apportionment doctrine (see e.g. Matter of Nye v IBM Corp., 2 AD3d 1164, 1164 [2003]; Matter of Krebs v Town of Ithaca, 293 AD2d 883, 883-884 [2002], lv denied 100 NY2d 501 [2003]), he could nevertheless succeed on his motion for summary judgment by demonstrating that his negligence was not a proximate cause of any actual and ascertainable damages to plaintiff (see Geraci v Munnelly, 85 AD3d 1361, 1362 [2011]; Bixby v Somerville, 62 AD3d 1137, 1139 [2009]; Tabner v Drake, 9 AD3d 606, 609 [2004]). In the context of the compromise reached in settlement of plaintiff's workers' compensation claim, a legal malpractice cause of action would be viable " 'if it is alleged that [the] settlement . . . was effectively compelled by the mistakes of counsel' " (Tortura v Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, P.C., 21 AD3d 1082, 1083 [2005], lv denied 6 NY3d 701 [2005], quoting Bernstein v Oppenheim & Co., 160 AD2d 428, 430 [1990]; see Rau v Borenkoff, 262 AD2d 388, 389 [1999]).

Nor is there any evidence that defendant could have litigated a more favorable result for plaintiff (see Sevey v Friedlander, 83 AD3d 1226, 1227 [2011], lv denied 17 NY3d 707 [2011]; Mega Group, Inc. v Pechenik & Curro, P.C., 32 AD3d 584, 586-587 [2006]). In determining whether plaintiff was entitled to continued benefits, the Board would have been confronted with differing medical opinions and would have been free to credit the opinion that plaintiff was no longer disabled as a result of the work-related injury (see e.g. Matter of Altobelli v Allinger Temporary Servs., Inc., 70 AD3d 1083, 1084 [2010]; Matter of Moore v St. Peter's Hosp., 18 AD3d 1001, 1002 [2005]). Had the Board accepted the opinion of plaintiff's treating orthopedist, plaintiff would have been entitled only to a lump-sum payment for his work-related injury, and would not be receiving the continuing benefits provided by the settlement."

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