“Attorneys should be responsible for harm they actually cause—not harm caused by judicial error.” The Supreme Court of Texas has held for the first time that, in the right circumstances, “judicial error can constitute a new and independent cause” or “superseding cause” that “destroys any causal connection” between an attorney-defendant’s alleged negligence and a client-plaintiff’s harm, precluding that client’s recovery on a legal malpractice claim. “If an attorney does not contribute to the judicial error itself and the judicial error is not otherwise reasonably foreseeable in the particular circumstances of the case, the error is a new and independent cause of the plaintiff’s injury if it ‘alters the natural sequence of events’ and ‘produces results that would not otherwise have occurred.’”

Stanfield v. Neubaum
Supreme Court of Texas (June 24, 2016)
Justice Guzman (Opinion); Chief Justice Hecht (Concurring)

The Neubaums were sued for usury. They lost at trial but prevailed on appeal. When that case ended, they sued their trial lawyers, seeking to recover the fees and other costs of their appeal. They argued that if their trial lawyers had not made certain mistakes at trial, they would not have suffered the adverse judgement or incurred the expenses of an appeal. While denying any malpractice, the lawyers argued that the adverse trial judgment was the result of judicial error—a fact established by the reversal on appeal—that constituted a “new and independent” cause of the Neubaums’ harm, destroying the proximate causation necessary for recovery on a legal malpractice claim. The Supreme Court agreed, and rendered judgment for the attorneys. Relying on “established negligence and proximate-cause principles,” the Court distinguished “superseding cause”—which breaks the chain of causation—from “concurring cause”—which does not. In a malpractice action, judicial error “can constitute a new and independent cause that relieves the attorney of liability,” the Court said, when that error is not “reasonably foreseeable” and the attorney does not contribute to it. But if the error “is reasonably foreseeable at the time of the defendant’s alleged negligence, the error is a concurring cause as opposed to a new and independent cause.” Here, the Court found, this particular judicial error was not reasonably foreseeable, the trial attorneys did not contribute to it, and that error therefore was “a superseding cause of the adverse judgment and the Neubaums’ resulting appellate litigation costs.”