Tort Law

Top NY Court Says Client with Reversed Conviction Can't Sue Lawyer for Loss-of-Liberty Damages

Reversing a lower state appellate ruling, New York’s top appeals court has refused to recognize a novel legal theory for awarding damages to an individual who says he was incarcerated because of his criminal defense lawyer’s ineffective representation.

Last year, the state supreme court’s Appellate Division, Fourth Department, had held that Thomas Dombrowski was entitled to pursue such a malpractice case against attorney Raymond Bulson after spending five years in prison for a sex-crime conviction that was reversed on appeal, Reuters reports.

As the Fourth Department explained in a written opinion, “In our view, a cause of action for criminal legal malpractice is analogous to causes of action for false arrest and malicious prosecution, both of which allow recovery for the plaintiff’s loss of liberty resulting from the plaintiff’s wrongful incarceration.”

But the Court of Appeals said the trial court, which had dismissed Dombrowski’s motion, got it right. It granted a summary judgment motion by Bulson and dismissed the malpractice case, finding that such damages are not available for legal malpractice.

Legal malpractice, unlike malicious prosecution, is not an intentional tort, the court explained. Plus, if such malpractice cases could be pursued, the consequences for the criminal justice system would be devastating, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote. Allowing such cases, he said, “could have a chilling effect on the willingness of the already-strapped defense bar to represent indigent accused.”

Lawyers for Bulson and Dombrowski didn’t respond to the news agency’s requests for comment.

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