Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Legal Malpractice-Chapman V. Bearfield: Redefining the Legal Standard of Care for Tennessee Attorneys

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Legal Malpractice-Chapman V. Bearfield: Redefining the Legal Standard of Care for Tennessee Attorneys

Article excerpt

When attorney misconduct causes a client to suffer harm, the attorney-client relationship may quickly become a defendant-plaintiff relationship if the client asserts a claim against the attorney for legal malpractice. By deciding to file a claim against the former attorney, the client immediately encounters a litany of challenges, beginning with the quest to find a new attorney to represent the malpractice action. The real hurdle in pursing the claim, however, may well be the crucial task of finding an expert to testify that the former attorney failed to handle the original matter according to the appropriate legal standard of care. Until recently in Tennessee, this presented an overwhelming obstacle as many Tennessee courts required expert witnesses to be familiar with a specific standard of care, namely, the standard of care existing in the defendant's community.1

This Comment will trace how the legal standard of care in Tennessee evolved into its present form after a recent 2006 Tennessee Supreme Court ("Supreme Court") decision in Chapman v. Bearfield,2 in which the court declared the applicable standard of care to be the degree of skill, ability, and learning exercised by attorneys practicing in the State of Tennessee, regardless of their specific location within the state.3 By construing the legal standard to encompass the entire state, the court broke barriers to litigation and made it easier for plaintiffs to procure qualified expert testimony. Also, this ruling clarifies the once murky legal standard, thus giving future notice to all Tennessee practitioners that a statewide paradigm will be used to evaluate the discharge of their legal responsibilities.

Historically, Tennessee followed the national trend allowing a legal malpractice action when the plaintiff establishes the traditional elements of a negligence claim, including proof of the applicable legal standard of care, breach of that standard by attorney misconduct, and proof that the attorney's negligence caused the plaintiff actual harm.4 Typically, courts require a plaintiff to prove the applicable standard of care by producing expert testimony, unless the attorney's negligence is such that it violates obligations common to a layman's understanding.5 Furthermore, the general rule provides that an expert must be qualified in the skill, training, education, knowledge, and ability on which he proffers judgment and opinion.6 In legal malpractice cases, the expert witness must offer such evidence that will assist the trier of fact by explaining how attorneys carry out their professional obligations under given circumstances.7 Although expert testimony is required in order to make the plaintiffs case, the exact standard that the expert should testify to, and that the court should apply, eluded definition in Tennessee until recently.8

In an attempt to elucidate the appropriate legal standard of care, in Spalding v. Davis,9 the Tennessee Supreme Court held that an attorney is liable for damages that result from his failure to exercise reasonable care as compared to other attorneys in his jurisdiction.10 In Spalding, the plaintiff brought a legal malpractice action against his divorce attorney, alleging the attorney erroneously advised him regarding future alimony payments to his exwife.11 In establishing an applicable standard of care, the Supreme Court compared the defendant's decisions and conduct with that of other attorneys faced with similar circumstances and fact patterns, including an attorney in a Nebraska divorce case.12 Although the court did not compare the defendant's actions and judgments to other lawyers in his community, county, or even the State of Tennessee, the court did reference previous Tennessee case law establishing a reasonable standard of care for any professional lawyer.13 The Supreme Court then fashioned the applicable rule by stating an attorney will be liable for damages resulting "from his failure to exercise ordinary care, skill, and diligence . …

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