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By: Gregory Blueford
In a case of first impression, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s order granting a motion to dismiss after determining the trial judge improperly dismissed the case because the expert affidavit in support of the complaint was written by a law partner of the filing attorney.
Plaintiff David Mitchell (“Plaintiff”) retained defendant law firm Parian Injury Law (“Parian”) to defend him in a personal injury case. Plaintiff alleges that Parian referred the case out to another law firm without his knowledge, who then failed to notify him of depositions that were trying to be set which ultimately led the court to dismiss the case and impose $1,8000 in sanctions for missing three depositions. Plaintiff further alleges that the first time he saw the complaint was after the dismissal and it did not resemble his actual claims made and appeared that the law firm used a complaint from a different case and simply substituted his name into the complaint.
In 2019, Plaintiff sued Parian and others (collectively “Defendants”) for legal malpractice and submitted an expert affidavit from his attorneys’ legal partner supporting the claims. Defendants moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that Plaintiff had not complied with the Georgia expert affidavit statute. The trial court granted the motion, finding an “inherent conflict between [the partner attorneys] in making the affidavit as a witness and being a member of the law firm” representing Plaintiff.
O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1 provides, in relevant part, that in any action asserting a claim for legal malpractice, the plaintiff is “required to file with the complaint and affidavit of an expert competent to testify, which affidavit shall set forth specifically at least one negligent act or omission claimed to exist and the factual basis for each such claim.”
The appellate court reversed the trial court decision, stating that the statute is clear that it “requires only that an affiant in a professional malpractice action be ‘competent to testify’ as to the opinion set forth in his or her affidavit” and that neither the statute nor the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct regarding attorney-client conflicts serves to bar a member of a firm from testifying for a colleague’s client “provided the testimony will not be adverse to or otherwise conflict with the client’s interests.”
As this is a case of first impression, it remains to be seen how this ruling will play out practically going forward. One could surmise that firms will initially rely on members of their own law firms to submit the necessary affidavit under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1 rather than rely on a hired expert to save costs up front, although it may not be a practical plan of action if the matter is going to actually require a professional malpractice attorney to give testimony later on in the litigation.
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Blueford at [email protected].