Burns v. Drier, No. 2009-3763, 2010 WL 3398757, June 11, 2010 (Pa. Comm. Pl. Ct. 2012) is a case which shows how important it is to properly draft a complaint. Prior to instituting any lawsuit, the Plaintiff must draft a ...
Burns v. Drier, No. 2009-3763, 2010 WL 3398757, June 11, 2010 (Pa. Comm. Pl. Ct. 2012) is a case which shows how important it is to properly draft a complaint. Prior to instituting any lawsuit, the Plaintiff must draft a complaint, affording a defendant a chance to answer. This case primarily involves what facts must be stated within a complaint.
The case originated from an underlying house fire where Ronald Burns filed a suit against Westfield Insurance Company in 2006. The original suit was related to restoration services provided byWestfieldfollowing a fire. In August, 2009 filed a writ of summons related to the institution of proceedings. In September, following the summons, the attorneys filed a pracepice for rule to file complaint, meaning that Ronald Burns had a limited time to file the complaint with the court.
In October, 2009, the plaintiffs then filed a complaint stating that the breach of contract and bad faith claims related to the fire were both meritorious actions. However, the Drier defendants allegedly did not pursue the suit effectively, and thus Burns received a very low settlement compared to the damage. The defendants then filed preliminary objections because they did not believe the complaint as issued by the plaintiffs complied with what was required for complaints.
When drafting a complaint inPennsylvania, it must set forth the material facts on which the claim is based. The evidence is considered in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. In this case, Drier was challenging the complaint, thus all facts must be considered in favor of Burns.
Drier's first claim was that the Burns complaint failed to specify the case within a case requirement ofPennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, a legal malpractice claim requires the plaintiff to establish that they employed the defendant attorney or can show a duty based on some other relationship, that the attorney charged with malpractice failed to use ordinary skill and knowledge in carrying out their duty, and finally that the attorney's negligence was the proximate cause of damage to the plaintiffs. According to the court, the legal malpractice standard inPennsylvaniarequires the plaintiff to prove the underlying action was viable against the putative defendant or Westside Insurance in this case. In drafting the complaint, the court believed that the facts as alleged, met all of these elements. At this stage, Burns didn't have to prove the facts, he only needed to show, that if true, the legal malpractice action, and "case-within-a-case" were proven. The court agreed that Burns did this.
The defendants did challenge based on lack of specificity regarding time, and location regarded to damages. The court ruled against Burns on these issues, but the reasons were unrelated to legal malpractice.
Drier also challenged the causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty and for breach of contract. InPennsylvania, the court noted that breach of contract between an attorney and a client does not require a specific instruction to be breached. The court believed Burns alleged that Drier violated instructions generally, and thus the complaint for breach of contract was upheld.
Finally, Drier alleged that the breach of fiduciary duty charge was a repackaging of legal malpractice. In essence, they believed that there were no new facts, and thus it did not give rise to an independent cause of action. The court did not agree. While not stating the elements, it is useful to remember from previous postings, that the breach of fiduciary duty requires the plaintiff prove employment of an attorney which would provide a basis for duty, the failure of the attorney to exercise ordinary skill and knowledge, and that such lack of knowledge was the proximate cause of damage to the plaintiff. To actually recover requires the plaintiff to show they would have won on the underlying claim but for defendant's negligence. The court also agreed with Burns that this breach requires a duty not to participate in self-dealing, and the offending party breaches that duty. Again, Burns probably won this case, because at this stage facts are decided in favor of the non-moving party.
This case is most important for exemplifying the importance of a complaint. In this case, if Burns had not met all the elements of each cause of action in his complaint, it may have turned out better. Luckily, the pleadings he submitted to the court touched on each issue. It is unclear how exact the elements must be touched, but it is important that the pleadings at least touch all the issues.