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Top swimmer sues attorney for legal malpractice

Some may be surprised that lawyers can be sued by their clients much like doctors can. But a dramatic California case recently concluded, illustrating some facets of legal malpractice.

The case’s complex court battles involved an athlete, once among America’s top young swimmers and a fast-rising star, who missed out on two opportunities of a lifetime. Besides features of legal malpractice, the case also illustrates some dos and don’ts of negotiating a contract.

Missed opportunities and a long road to victory

The athlete was recruited for professional swimming by the team director of USA Swimming, the sport’s U.S. governing body. According to her lawsuit, the director offered the organization’s financial support without her having to commit to any specific performance markers. Thanks to the offer, the swimmer passed up a 5-year scholarship to Auburn University.

But USA Swimming then fired the team director and refused to honor these entirely oral agreements. Despite high stakes of these negotiations, only then did the swimmer finally hire an attorney to ensure the organization honored the commitments of its now-former team director.

However, this attorney persuaded her to drop any claims against the former team director and agree to a deal with USA Swimming that required her to remain for 3 years among the top 25 in the world or top 3 in the U.S. Though she thought she’d overcome it, her eating disorder returned. She abandoned the sport of swimming.

Sues for legal malpractice then told to change approach

The swimmer (presumably backed by a new attorney) sued the lawyer for malpractice. According to the suit, he hadn’t disclosed many communications and conflicts of interest, such as intimate ties with USA Swimming and the team director, including having previously legally represented the director.

The case took a long and winding path through California court system.

Early in the process, a jury found in her favor. Still, the court granted a new trial. The reason, the court said, was that she failed to make either of two common arguments used to prove legal malpractice.

She might have proved that the lawyer would have won a case with USA Swimming if not for (“but for”) the wrongdoing of the lawyer. Alternately, she could have proved a “case within a case,” proving that the lawyer would have prevailed had he had not failed to make certain arguments or present certain evidence.

When this decision was appealed, the appeals court found that these common malpractice standards didn’t fit this case. Instead, alternative reasons to sue for malpractice, such as breach of fiduciary duty or fraud by willful concealment, should be allowed.

Under these “causes of action,” the swimmer finally prevailed.

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