§41.1 Generally

The Case: Chapman v. Bearfield , 207 S.W.3d 736 (Tenn. 2006).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiffs retained Defendant attorney to represent them in a medical malpractice action after the death of a family member. Plaintiffs became dissatisfied with Defendant's representation, eventually hiring new counsel and bringing a legal malpractice action against Defendant.

The Bottom Line:

  • "In Spalding v. Davis, 674 S.W.2d 710 (Tenn. 1984), the Court noted that '[t]he settled general rule in most if not all [United States] jurisdictions is that an attorney . . . may be held liable to his client for damages resulting from his failure to exercise [the] ordinary care, skill, and diligence . . . which is commonly possessed and exercised by attorneys in practice in the jurisdiction.' Id. at 714 (emphasis added).FN1 Twice since 1984, in Lazy Seven Coal Sales, Inc. v. Stone & Hinds, P.C., 813 S.W.2d 400, 405-06 (Tenn. 1991), and in Sanjines v. Ortwein & Assocs., 984 S.W.2d 907, 910 (Tenn. 1998), we repeated with approval, though without further elaboration or analysis, the Spalding formulation. However, none of these cases presented a good opportunity to define the term 'jurisdiction.'
    FN1 In Meadows v. State, 849 S.W.2d 748, 752 (1993), we overruled Spalding on grounds unrelated to the issue in this case."
    207 S.W.3d at 739.
  • "Since 1984, various panels of the Court of Appeals have been inconsistent in defining the 'jurisdiction' referenced in Spalding. On the one hand, two reported opinions of the Court of Appeals have linked the legal malpractice standard of care with the medical malpractice standard, which is governed by a statutory locality rule.FN2 See Underwood v. Waterslides of Mid-Am., Inc., 823 S.W.2d 171, 183 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991) (finding that a professional's familiarity with 'the local standard of care is the exception rather than the rule,' with the principal exceptions being law and medicine); Cleckner v. Dale, 719 S.W.2d 535, 539 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1986) ('a lawyer's standard of care does not differ markedly from that of physicians or other professionals') (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). On the other hand, one intermediate appellate court panel understood 'jurisdiction' to mean 'Tennessee.' See Wood v. Parker, 901 S.W.2d 374, 379 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995) ('[w]e find nothing . . . to show that defendant . . . deviated from the accepted standard of care for attorneys in Tennessee') (emphasis added). In this case, the Court of Appeals, in its opinion below, also adopted a statewide professional standard of care.
    FN2 In unpublished opinions, three other Court of Appeals panels have interpreted 'jurisdiction,' either explicitly or implicitly, to mean a political subdivision of the state. See Logan v. Winstead, No. 03A01-9902-CV-00057, 1999 WL 538208, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 14, 1999) (crediting a defendant attorney's service as a district attorney general in the Third Judicial District and as an attorney in the county in which the case was heard as evidence of his awareness of the standard of care in his 'jurisdiction'); Davis v. Simpson, No. 1295, 1990 WL 16893, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 27, 1990) (noting that a defendant attorney's 'qualifications and experience in domestic litigation in Knox County' helped inform his awareness of the professional standard of care); Anthony v. Felknor & Cunningham, No. 146, 1988 Tenn. App. LEXIS 601, at *8-9 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 1988) (holding, without analysis, that Spalding meant 'an attorney has the duty to use the care and skill ordinarily used by attorneys in the same or similar locality under similar circumstances')."
    Id .
  • "We agree with the instant decision of the Court of Appeals. A 'jurisdiction' is '[a] geographic area within which political or judicial authority may be exercised.' [Black's Law Dictionary 855 (7th ed. 1999)]; see also [Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1227 (1993)] (defining jurisdiction as 'the limits or territory within which any particular power may be exercised'). This Court allows an attorney with a Tennessee law license to practice anywhere in the state. See [Tenn. R. Sup. Ct. 7 § 1.05 (2006)] ('All persons admitted to the bar of Tennessee are . . . (i) officers of the courts of Tennessee, eligible for admission to practice in any court in this State . . . and (ii) subject to the duties and standards imposed from time to time on attorneys in this State.'). An attorney practicing in Tennessee, then, must exercise the ordinary care, skill, and diligence commonly possessed and practiced by attorneys throughout the state. Indeed, while there may be local rules of practice within the various judicial districts of our State, there are no local standards of care. There is only one standard of care for attorneys practicing in Tennessee: a statewide standard. By extension, an expert who opines in a legal malpractice case about an attorney's adherence to our professional standard of care must be familiar with the statewide professional standard of care." Id. at 739-40.
  • "Bearfield argues that the medical malpractice locality rule should be extended to legal malpractice actions. However, the locality rule for medical malpractice is a creature of statute. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-115(a)(1) (Supp. 2005) (standard of care relates to 'the community in which the defendant practices or in a similar community'). Neither this Court nor the legislature has created a similar standard for the legal profession, and we decline to create one here." Id. at 741.
  • "We also believe the adoption of a statewide professional standard of care for attorneys who practice law in Tennessee is good policy. Three concerns motivate our conclusion. First, if a local professional standard of care prevailed, plaintiffs might have difficulty proving their legal malpractice cases because local attorneys might not be willing to speak against their colleagues. See [3 Ronald E. Mallen & Jeffrey M. Smith, Legal Malpractice § 19.5 (5th ed. 2000)]. Second, local variations in the standard of care could create an inefficient and inequitable morass of professional standards of care, reducing the likelihood that some attorneys would face malpractice claims while increasing the likelihood for others. See id. Finally, the emergence of the internet as a primary tool for legal research undercuts historical transportation and communications arguments favoring local variations in the standard of care. See Russo v. Griffin, 510 A.2d 436, 438 (Vt. 1986). We join those states which have accepted these and other rationales for maintaining a statewide standard of professional care for their attorneys.See, e.g., Brett v. Berkowitz, 706 A.2d 509, 517 (Del. Super. Ct. 1998); Kellos v. Sawilowsky, 325 S.E.2d 757, 758 (Ga. 1985); Fenaille v. Coudert, 44 N.J.L. 286, 289 (N.J. 1882); Little v. Matthewson, 442 S.E.2d 567, 570 (N.C. Ct. App. 1994), aff'd 455 S.E.2d 160 (N.C. 1995); Feil v. Wishek, 193 N.W.2d 218, 225 (N.D. 1971); Smith v. Haynsworth, Marion, McKay & Geurard, 472 S.E.2d 612, 614 (S.C. 1954); Russo v. Griffin, 510 A.2d 436, 438 (Vt. 1986); Cook, Flanagan & Berst v. Clausing, 438 P.2d 865, 866 (Wash. 1975); Moore v. Lubnau, 855 P.2d 1245, 1250 (Wyo. 1993)." Id. at 740.

Other Sources of Note: Wilson v. Pickens , 196 S.W.3d 198 (Tenn. App. 2005) (in a legal malpractice case a person has been injured where (1) there has been the imposition of a liability against him; (2) where he has suffered the loss of a legal right, remedy or interest; or (3) he has been forced to take some action or otherwise suffer some actual inconvenience, such as incurring an expense, as a result of defendant's negligent act).

Recent Cases: 

Nelson v. Michael D. Ponce & Assoc., PLLC, No. M2014-01079-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 867117 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2015) (summary judgment for defendant affirmed in legal malpractice case where plaintiff failed to make expert disclosure before deadline in scheduling order and failed to file response to summary judgment by required date; in most legal malpractice cases, expert proof is required so plaintiff’s claim failed without expert affidavit where defendant had submitted proper expert proof).

Barna v. Preston Law Group, P.C. , No. M2008-02560-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 2616038 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2009) (reversing summary judgment finding defendant's conclusory opinions failed to affirmatively negate essential element of plaintiff's claim or establish that plaintiff cannot prove essential element at trial); Strong v. Baker, M2007-00339-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 859086 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 31, 2008) (affirming denial of motion to stay finding plaintiff had sustained actual injury even though extent of damages was unknown due to underlying claim not being fully litigated and upholding summary judgment finding plaintiff failed to present expert proof sufficient to overcome defendant's expert affidavit); Austin v. Sneed, M2006-00083-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 3375335 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 13, 2007) (analyzing legal malpractice claim in federal excessive force claim).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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