The Burden of Proving Legal Malpractice Claims in Louisiana

Every detail matters at trial and can make the difference between winning and losing. In a recent Louisiana case, BCM L.L.C (“BCM”) and Nawlins Kajun Foods, L.L.C. (“Nawlins”) sued Copeland’s of New Orleans under the theory of detrimental reliance. At the end of the trial, the jury sent a request to the judge to clarify certain words and phrases in the jury instructions. After discussion with both parties’ lawyers, the judge issued supplemental instructions regarding the theory of detrimental reliance. Neither party objected to the instructions and the jury returned a verdict denying BCM and Nawlins’ claim for detrimental reliance, but it did reward them damages for conversion. In a post-trial motion, the lawyers for BCM and Nawlins claimed the jury instructions were confusing and misleading, entitling them to a new trial. The trial court denied the motion. BCM and Nawlins then filed a legal malpractice suit against their former attorneys, claiming they should have objected to the jury instructions because they were confusing and misstated the law on detrimental reliance.

The burden of proof for legal malpractice is tough to meet. BCM and Nawlins had to produce evidence sufficient to convince a reasonable trier of fact of (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship; (2) negligent representation by the attorney; and (3) loss caused by that negligence” and also had to prove their attorneys, now the defendants, failed to exercise the degree of care, skill, and diligence which is exercised by prudent practicing attorneys in their locality. Clearly BCM and Nawlins can establish prong number one, but prongs number two and three requires more analysis.

In order for the attorneys to have been negligent in not objecting to the jury instructions, the jury instructions must have been inadequate or misstated the law. The relevant governing law of Louisiana sets forth certain requirements for jury instructions. To be satisfactory the instructions given to the jury must contain a correct legal principle to apply and be presented in a reasonable and fair manner. The judge presiding over the case at trial is not required to tailor the instructions to the wishes of either party, but the judge is required to correctly state the law that the jury will apply. Reversible error occurs when a legal principle that must be applied to the case at trial is left out of the jury instructions. The judges at the trial level can generally formulate the instructions to the jury in whatever way they prefer.  And their judgement in that formulation will not be overturned as long as the law is correctly conveyed. When an appellate court is deciding whether the jury instructions given were sufficient the court will consider whether the jury was misled to the point that it could not fairly decide the case.  The court must weigh the degree of any error or confusing term with the instructions in their entirety as well as the state of affairs of the case. Therefore, small errors that do not affect the statement of law as a whole will not necessarily be fatal.

The supplemental instructions in this case read: “under the detrimental reliance doctrine in Louisiana law, a party is permitted to recover for economic harm whenever the defendant made a representation by word or conduct upon which the plaintiff justifiably relied and because of which the plaintiff changed his position to his detriment.” The attorneys for BCM and Nawlins argued in their post-trial motion that the use of the term “party” to refer to the “defendant” and then to refer to the “plaintiff” in the following sentence confused the jury such that they should have gotten a new trial. BCM and Nawlins, in their subsequent case against their former attorneys, point out that their lawyers admitted they believed the instructions were confusing when they filed the post-trial motion on their behalf. However, this admission is not required or dispositive of legal malpractice. The appellate court, using de novo review, found the supplemental instructions correctly stated the law on detrimental reliance. Furthermore, when considered in the context of the instructions as a whole, the complained of sentences make sense and are not confusing. The instructions might have been better constructed, but they were not incorrect or misleading. As a result, the trial court correctly granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Legal malpractice claims are hard to prove and place attorneys in an awkward position. If more legal malpractice claims are brought, attorneys will be wary to file post-trial motions for a new trial based on a minor mistake they made during trial. This might prevent their clients from receiving a fair trial they are entitled to if a mistake has been made because the attorney is worried about being sanctioned for legal malpractice. With the requirements for jury instructions granting so much leeway to judges and the burden for legal malpractice cases being so steep, it is extremely hard to succeed in such a case.