Tutrix Was Proper Party To Bring Legal Malpractice Claim On Behalf of Minor

court_justice_munich_bavaria-scaledA minor is generally unable to bring a lawsuit on their behalf. As seen in the following case, this can lead to disputes about who the proper party is to bring a lawsuit for the minor. 

Shannon Jones and Jennifer Brunelle filed a lawsuit against healthcare providers, the manufacturers of a device used in surgery, and loss of consortium claims for their daughter, Haley Jones. They retained an attorney, Gary Roth, to represent them. They settled the medical malpractice claim against one of the defendants. Brunelle received letters appointing her as natural tutrix for their minor daughter, Haley Jones. They then filed a petition in the medical malpractice lawsuit to approve the settlement, which the court granted. 

Brunelle then discharged Roth as her attorney and retained attorneys at the Gainsburgh firm. With the new representation, they settled with the medical device manufacturer. The settlement was not finalized until months later. Brunelle claimed her attorneys had committed legal malpractice while negotiating the settlement agreement and caused delays in finalizing it. After extensive disputes related to the underlying facts in the case, the trial court eventually granted the Roth defendants summary judgment motion. It dismissed Brunelle’s legal malpractice claims against the Roth attorneys. Brunelle appealed, claiming the trial court erred in dismissing her claims. 

On appeal, the trial court considered whether there was an attorney-client relationship between the Roth defendants and Haley Jones. Brunelle argued the fact Haley lacked capacity was irrelevant to determining whether Haley and the Roth defendants had an attorney-client relationship. She claimed Haley’s father entered a contract with the Roth defendants for himself and on Haley’s behalf. Therefore, Brunelle argued the Roth defendants owed an independent duty to Haley. The Roth defendants countered any breach of their duty to Haley depended on their attorney-client relationship with her father. 

To succeed in a legal malpractice claim, the plaintiff must establish that an attorney-client relationship was in effect when the alleged malpractice occurred. See Vagelos v. Abramson. There must be a clear and express agreement between an attorney and the client for an attorney-client relationship to exist. See Weinstein v. Weinstein

Haley’s father had to enter an agreement with the Roth attorneys because Haley was a minor. There was no dispute Haley’s father had entered this agreement. However, Brunelle discharged the Roth attorneys two years before the alleged malpractice occurred and hired different attorneys. Nonetheless, because the contract was intended to benefit Haley’s interests, the Roth attorneys had a duty not only to Haley’s father but also to Haley herself. Therefore, Haley could bring a legal malpractice claim against the Roth attorneys. 

While the Roth attorneys argued only her father was entitled to bring a legal malpractice claim against them on Haley’s behalf, the appellate court disagreed. The court explained this could make it so a minor who subsequently becomes an adult could not bring a legal malpractice claim if his or her parents refused. Under La. C.C.P. art. 683(C), Brunelle was the proper party to bring the legal malpractice lawsuit on Haley’s behalf because she was Haley’s co-tutrix. Next, the court had to consider whether the legal malpractice claim had merit. 

Brunelle alleged the Roth defendants were negligent in failing to obtain informed consent from Haley to enter the $8.25 million settlement, failing to disclose before settlement how the settlement funds would be allocated, and failing to take action to enforce the settlement. 

The appellate court explained because Haley was a minor at the time of the settlement, she lacked the capacity to consent to the settlement. See La. C.C. art. 1918. Therefore, the Roth attorneys did not have a duty to communicate with Haley directly. Instead, it was sufficient to only communicate with her parents. 

Haley’s father provided an affidavit that stated at the time of the settlement, the Roth attorneys informed him about the potential settlement and how funds would be litigated. Brunelle did not provide any evidence that contradicted Haley’s father’s affidavit. The appellate court also explained the attorneys did not have a duty to inform their clients on the specifics of how the settlement funds would be allocated. 

Concerning Brunelle’s claim that the Roth attorneys failed to enforce the settlement, which resulted in interest being lost on the settlement funds, the court focused on who caused the delay in finalizing the settlement. Written letters indicated Brunelle had rejected the settlement. Further, Haley’s father had to file a motion to enforce the settlement, requesting the court order Brunelle to sign the documentation required to finalize the settlement. Brunelle did not present any evidence that there were other reasons why it took so long to finalize the settlement besides her delay in refusing to sign the required documentation. 

Therefore, because of the lack of evidence the attorneys had breached a duty to Haley or caused a delay in executing the settlement, the appellate court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of Brunelle’s legal malpractice claims. Therefore, even though Brunelle was the proper party to bring Haley’s legal malpractice claim, she could still not prevail because the claim lacked merits.

This case highlights the complexities that arise when a minor is involved in a lawsuit. Due to Haley’s minority, she could not bring the legal malpractice claim on her own, leading to disputes about who the proper party should be. The appellate court clarified that Brunelle, as co-tutrix for Haley, had the authority to pursue the claim on her behalf. However, despite the proper representation, the court ultimately dismissed Brunelle’s legal malpractice claims against the Roth attorneys, finding a lack of evidence to support the alleged breaches of duty or delays in the settlement process. This case underscores the importance of establishing an attorney-client relationship and presenting substantial evidence when pursuing legal malpractice claims, especially when minors are involved.

Additional Sources: Shannon Jones and Jennifer Jones, Individually and on Behalf of their Daughter, Haley Jones v. ABC Ins. Co. and Cobe Cardiovascular, Inc., et al

Article Written By Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Lawsuits Involving Minors: Parents File Suit When Minor Child Suffers as a Result of Physician’s Failure to Test Brother

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