Reversal: Judgment to be entered for law firm in malpractice case

Judgment will be entered for a northern Indiana law firm facing a legal malpractice claim after the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the firm’s motion for judgment on the evidence.

In 2013, Lucy Mundia’s husband Edward Mwuara had been arrested on suspicion of violating a protective order against Mundia’s 6-year-old daughter, Shirley. Authorities misspelled his name upon his arrest, and when a deputy prosecutor checked the protective order registry under the misspelled name, she found no active order. Thus, Mwuara was released, but days he later attacked Mundia and Shirley, killing the girl.

Mundia hired the Drendall Law Office to represent her in a potential negligence suit against the city of South Bend and St. Joseph County, but the firm failed to file the requisite tort claim notice, thus “barring” Mundia’s claims. Mundia responded with a legal malpractice action, but the St. Joseph Circuit Court ruled in the law firm’s favor. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reversed summary judgment for Drendall and remanded Mundia’s case, finding Drendall did not meet its initial burden of negating the elements of proximate cause and damages of Mundia’s legal malpractice claim.

Following a jury trial that issued a verdict in Mundia’s favor, Drendall renewed an earlier motion for judgment on the evidence but was denied. However, the law firm found more success on its second appeal to the COA in Drendall Law Office, P.C. v. Lucy Mundia, 19A-PL-582.

Members of the appellate panel on Monday found the jury’s verdict in Mundia’s favor was clearly erroneous and that her evidence was insufficient to prove that Drendall’s failure to file a tort claim notice caused her to lose the opportunity to settle with the public entities. An essential element of her legal malpractice claim was thus not supported by substantial evidence, it concluded.

“Although Mundia’s evidence suggests the possibility of a settlement was not completely foreclosed, there was no substantial evidence or reasonable inference from the evidence that it was probable she would have obtained a settlement under these circumstances,” the COA wrote in its reversal. “In other words, Mundia’s evidence may have proved that she could have gotten a settlement, but it did not prove that she would have.

“… Although the facts of this case are undeniably tragic and Mundia has unquestionably suffered harm, the law and the evidence in this case do not support her claim for relief. Mundia has failed to present sufficient, probative evidence on a necessary element of her legal malpractice claim, and therefore the jury’s verdict in her favor ‘is wholly unwarranted,’” it concluded.

The COA thus concluded the trial court abused its discretion in denying Drendall’s Trial Rule 50(A) motion for judgment on the evidence and remanded for a vacation of the jury’s verdict, as well as entry of judgment for the law firm.

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