Legal Memorandum: Proving Causation in Legal Malpractice

Issue: What must a plaintiff prove regarding causation in a legal malpractice action brought under Washington law?

Area of Law: Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Legal malpractice action; Causation; Proximate cause
Jurisdiction: Washington
Cited Cases: 971 P.2d 115; 704 P.2d 600; 952 P.2d 162; 93 Wash. App. 929; 454 P.2d 376; 814 P.2d 1189; 470 S.E.2d 539; 62 Wash. App. 353; 75 Wash. 2d 800; 698 P.2d 77; 951 P.2d 1118; 899 P.2d 814; 134 Wash. 2d 509
Cited Statutes: Wash. Rev. Code. § 4.22.070(1) (Supp. 2000)
Date: 09/01/2000

Under Washington law, a plaintiff proves legal malpractice by establishing four elements:  (1) an attorney-client relationship; (2) that gives rise to a standard of care; (3) a breach of the duty; and (4) causation.  Daugert v. Pappas, 104 Wash. 2d 254, 704 P.2d 600, 602 (1985).  Importantly, under Washington law the attorney rules of professional conduct are not equivalent to the attorney’s duty of care.  Hetzel v. Parks, 93 Wash. App. 929, 935, 971 P.2d 115, 118 (1999).  “It is the breach of a duty of care that is actionable, not the ethical violations per se.”  Id. at 935, 971 P.2d at 118. 

It is axiomatic that “negligence standing alone is not sufficient to impose liability on a wrongdoer.”  Moyer v. Clark, 75 Wash. 2d 800, 454 P.2d 376, 376 (1969).  Unless the defendant’s wrongful conduct also was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, there can be no liability.  Id., 454 P.2d at 376.  Obviously, “[a] breach of duty is not the proximate cause of an injury if the event which produced the injury would have occurred regardless of the defendant’s conduct.”  Lunt v. Mount Spokane Skiing Corp., 62 Wash. App. 353, 362, 814 P.2d 1189, 1194 (1991) (holding that even if the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty, their failure in that regard did not proximately cause her injuries).

Under Washington law, proximate cause […]

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