Stanfield v. Neubaum: A trial court’s error as a new and independent cause

The Supreme Court of Texas cleared its term docket on Friday, June 24. I’ve written some notes on recent cases which caught my eye.

In Stanfield v. Neubaum, No. 15-0387, the Court held judicial error can be a new and independent cause that may preclude a subsequent legal malpractice action. Stanfield involved a usury suit. The trial court erred in permitting an agency instruction in the jury charge. After losing at trial on the agency instruction, the Neubaums appealed the erroneous agency instruction. The appellate court reversed the judgment in favor of the Neubaums based on the erroneous instruction. The Neubaums incurred an additional $140,000 in appellate attorney’s fees. The Neubaums then sued their trial attorneys, claiming the error would have been immaterial if their attorneys would not have been negligent in other ways.

The Supreme Court held judicial error which intervenes between an attorney’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injury can constitute a new and independent cause. The new and independent cause lets the attorney off the hook. The judicial error must not be reasonably foreseeable. The key question is whether the trial court’s error is a reasonably foreseeable result of the attorney’s negligence in light of all existing circumstances. In other words, did the attorney’s negligence directly contribute to and cooperate with the judicial error? If it did not, then the judicial error is a new an intervening cause.

This ruling strikes me as a common sense one. The Stanfield Court agreed with the Utah Supreme Court in noting that, “if clients could subject attorneys to malpractice liability based on judicial error and clients’ beliefs that the attorneys could have litigated the case more effectively, ‘an attorney would be subject to liability every time a judge erroneously ruled against the attorney’s client.'” To hold otherwise would potentially subject the attorney to liability for a court’s failure to follow and apply the law. That would be an absurd result.





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