THE REMINGER REPORT
February 20, 2009
OHIO SUPREME COURT CLARIFIES THE STANDARD
OF PROOF IN LEGAL MALPRACTICE CASES
Historically, in establishing a claim for legal malpractice in Ohio, and proving that an attorney’s breach of the standard of care
caused the plaintiff damage, a plaintiff has been required to show that he would have been successful in the underlying case
“but for” the attorney’s malpractice. This is known as the “case-within-a case” doctrine, wherein a plaintiff must prove the merits
of the underlying case in order to prove the merits of the legal malpractice case.
Since the Ohio Supreme Court decision in Vahila v. Hall (1997) 77 Ohio St.3 421, however, there has been much confusion as
to whether the “case-within-a-case” doctrine is still the rule of law in Ohio. In Vahila, the Supreme Court rejected the “case-
within-a-case” doctrine given the particular facts of that matter, and found that the plaintiff was not required to prove that he
would have prevailed in the underlying case. Rather, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff may only be required, depending on
the situation, to present “some evidence” of the merits of the underlying claim. Moreover, in rejecting the “case-within-a-case”
doctrine in Vahila, the Court failed to clarify whether its holding was a blanket rule applicable to all legal malpractice actions, or
whether plaintiffs would still be required, under certain circumstances, to prove the merits of the underlying claim.
Accordingly, when the Eighth District Court of Appeals determined in Environmental Network Corporation v. Goodman Weiss
Miller, L.L.P. (2008), 119 Ohio St.3d 209, that the plaintiffs were not required to prove that they would have been successful in
the underlying case in order to establish their legal malpractice case, the Reminger law firm was asked by the Ohio Association
By Nicholas D. Satullo of Civil Trial Attorneys to prepare an amicus brief on behalf of the defendants for the purpose of petitioning the Ohio Supreme
& James O’Connor Court to review the issue and to clarify the application of the “case-within-a-case” doctrine.
In Environmental Network, the plaintiffs alleged that their attorneys breached the standard of care by failing to properly prepare for trial, which allegedly
resulted in the defendants coercing the plaintiffs into an unfair settlement. The plaintiffs argued that had the attorneys been prepared to try the underlying
case, and had the case been tried, they would have achieved a better result than the settlement. Importantly, during the legal malpractice trial, the trial
court instructed the jury that the plaintiffs were only required to present “some evidence” on the merits of the underlying case. After the jury returned a
verdict for the plaintiffs, the case was appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. In affirming the verdict, the Eighth District held that pursuant to
Vahila the plaintiffs were not required to prove that they would have been successful in the underlying case “but for” the attorneys breach of the standard of
The Supreme Court reversed. Without overruling Vahila, the Court limited it by stating that Vahila simply stated that there were some cases in which a
plaintiff might be able to sustain a prima facie case without proof that there would have been success in the underlying matter. The court then concluded
that Vahila “necessarily implied that there are some cases in which the plaintiff must so establish. This is one such case.” In that one sentence, the Court
finally rang the death knell to an argument that, for over a decade, has unfairly resulted in cases of attorney liability going to juries—cases that should have
otherwise failed for lack of proof of proximate cause. Although the Court limited its decision to cases premised on the theory that a trial would have
rendered a better result than a settlement, the more important feature of its decision is the recognition that the virtual lack of standards in Vahila could no
longer promote the results that had prevailed since Vahila was decided in 1997. The invitation to further limit Vahila will no doubt be accepted by counsel
as different variations on this theme are presented.
Reminger professional liability lawyers found especial satisfaction in the decision, not simply because we were invited by Ohio Academy of Civil Trial
Attorneys to submit an Amicus Curiae brief, but because we have been advancing this very interpretation of Vahila statewide since it was decided.
Environmental Network will hopefully provide better predictability to an area of litigation that has for too long been the subject of outright exploitation.
If you have any questions or would like a copy of the full opinion, please call a member of our Professional Liability Practice Group listed below.
Nicholas D. Satullo D. Cheryl Atwell James J. Brudny, Jr.
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Donald J. Moracz Kelly A. Johns Brian D. Goldwasser
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