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Legal Memorandum: Punitive Damages in Legal Malpractice Cases

Issue: Under Minnesota law, may a client recover punitive damages from an attorney in a professional malpractice action?

Area of Law: Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Punitive damages; Legal malpractice
Jurisdiction: Minnesota
Cited Cases: 494 N.W.2d 261; 437 N.W.2d 749
Cited Statutes: Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. 1 (1984); Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. a, § 549.20, subd. b; Minn. Stat. § 549.191
Date: 06/01/2009

Punitive damages are available in civil actions according to Minnesota Statutes.*FN1  Although at one time Minnesota law allowed for an award of punitive damages in a civil action based on “willful indifference to the rights . . . of others,” see, Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. 1 (1984), discussed in Gillespie v. Klun, 406 N.W.2d 547, 558-59 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987), since 1990 Minnesota statutes allow for imposition of punitive damages “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others,” Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. a.  Now, punitive damages are assessed against a defendant only when it is shown that the defendant acted with deliberate disregard, which state is defined in the statute:

(b) A defendant has acted with deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others if the defendant has knowledge of facts or intentionally disregards facts that create a high probability of injury to the rights or safety of others and:

 

(1)        deliberately proceeds to act in conscious or intentional disregard of the high degree of probability of injury to the rights or safety of others; or

(2)        deliberately proceeds to act with indifference to the high probability of injury to the rights or safety of others.

Id., § 549.20, subd. b.  Thus, while in the past a punitive damages award might have been possible, see Gillespie, 406 N.W.2d at 559 (holding that punitive damages […]

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