• Supreme Court of Tennessee Holds Standard of Care in Legal Malpractice is Statewide, Not Local
  • December 18, 2006
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Chicago Office
  • Cathy L. Chapman, et al. v. Rick J. Bearfield, ___S.W. 3d___, 2006 WL 3162923 (Tenn 2006)

    Brief Summary
    The court rejected a localized standard of care for Tennessee attorneys and held that a single, statewide standard applies to legal malpractice claims.

    Complete Summary
    The Chapman family retained Rick Bearfield in 2001 to pursue a medical malpractice claim. After they became dissatisfied with his services, their new lawyer advised them to sue Mr. Bearfield for professional negligence. This pro se legal malpractice action followed.

    Mr. Bearfield responded with a motion for summary judgment to which he attached an affidavit stating that he had not committed malpractice under the professional standards applicable to attorneys “in the upper East Tennessee area.” Id. at *1. In response, the plaintiffs filed an affidavit from a medical malpractice attorney from Knoxville, stating that the standard of care for attorneys in medical malpractice cases in Tennessee had been violated. The lower court granted the summary judgment based on the failure of the plaintiffs’ affidavit to meet the locality rule and because it was technically deficient for failing to have supporting documents attached.

    The court of appeals vacated the summary judgment on the basis there was no locality rule for lawyers practicing in Tennessee, and the plaintiffs should have been given additional time to attach the supporting documents.

    The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted review solely on the locality versus statewide standard issue and agreed with the court of appeals. Although there is a statutory locality rule that applies in medical malpractice cases, there is no such rule for attorneys. “[T]he settled general rule in most if not all [United States] jurisdictions in that an attorney…may be liable to his client for damages resulting from his failure to exercise [the] ordinary care, skill, and diligence…which is commonly possessed and exercised by attorneys in practice in the jurisdiction.” Spaulding v. Davis, 674 S.W. 2d, 710, 714 (Tenn. 1984).

    The court noted that an attorney with a license to practice in Tennessee may practice anywhere in the state. “An attorney practicing in Tennessee, then, must exercise the ordinary care, skill, and diligence commonly practiced by attorneys throughout the state. Indeed while there may be local rules of practice within the various jurisdictional districts of our State, there are no local standards of care.” 2006 WL 3162923 at *3. The court noted that the legislature had created by statute a localized standard in medical malpractice cases. There was no similar statute that applied to lawyers. The court also felt it was good policy to have a statewide standard because local attorneys may be reluctant to criticize each other and local variations in the standard could create inequitable results in which some attorneys faced greater risk of claims in certain regional areas. Finally, the use of the internet for most legal research undercut any local variations in the standards.

    Significance of Case 
    As the court here notes, a defense to a legal malpractice claim based on a local, rather than a statewide, standard of care is unlikely to be successful anywhere in the country.