Is emotional distress considered in a legal malpractice case?

It is natural to feel anger or stress after discovering your lawyer committed legal malpractice. They promised a fair representation, so discovering that they betrayed your agreement out of a conflict of interest or personal reasons would be upsetting.

When reviewing a legal malpractice accusation, the court will consider the financial or physical damages that occurred as a result of your former attorney’s actions. While they are willing to hear testimony that showcases the emotional damage they inflicted upon you, it is not common for it to play a large role in the settlement. However, there have been instances where it does serve as an important part in the plaintiff’s recovery, and it is crucial to understand what circumstances could lead to this decision.

A swimmer’s breakdown

An example where emotional distress contributed to the final verdict can be seen in a recent California lawsuit between a professional swimmer and her attorney. After the swimmer finished high school, the USA Swimming National Team Director promised her that the organization would cover her tuition to a local college with training expenses to help her go professional. However, USA Swimming let the director within a couple months and told the woman she would only receive small parts of those benefits.

She then hired a lawyer to secure a better deal, but the attorney did not mention that he has previous relationships with USA Swimming staff and kept in constant contact with the USA Swimming President. The deal the swimmer eventually got was worse than the other plans as it was tied to world rankings, resulting in her developing bulimia, depression and financial difficulties. After she quit in 2013, she found out about her lawyer’s connections to USA Swimming and brought him to court.

In 2016, the Orange County Superior Court jury found the attorney guilty of breaching fiduciary duty and fraud by willful concealment and would award the swimmer over $600,000 in damages. However, a judge later ordered a new trial as he believed the woman and her legal team did not prove that someone else could have negotiated a better deal in the situation. Recently, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District of California reversed the judge’s motion as they believe it was “granted on erroneous legal theories.”

A happy ending?

Aside from the case’s back and forth nature, the most notable aspect of the verdict was the role emotional distress played. The appeals court notes that the lawyer’s deception led to the swimmer experiencing extraneous stress, anxiety, a sense of betrayal and a negative impact on her personal relationships and views towards swimming. They state that the plaintiff’s testimony was enough to support emotional distress damages and “was sufficient to establish her damages in the absence of any expert testimony.”

This case does demonstrate that emotional distress damage recovery is still possible in today’s legal malpractice cases. However, this case does have far more to go off of than just “a sense of betrayal.” The swimmer was deceived for years with the faulty contract affecting her finances, education, career, mentality and personal health. She is also relatively young, which can make the jury believe that the emotional damage will have long-term consequences.

The verdict does demonstrate the different damages that are recoverable in legal malpractice cases. If you want to know what areas you can recover in your lawsuit, you should contact an attorney that specializes in legal malpractice cases to give you a sense of what options you have at your disposal.