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PA Limits Suits Against Defense Attorneys

The malpractice suit against her was "a mere buzzing fly," said Patricia Dugan, a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia, PA.   So rather than contact her insurance company and watch her rates rise she asked a friend to handle the case.

Her instincts were correct: the Common Pleas Judge swatted away the suit.  It had been filed by a prisoner for whom Ms. Dugan had brokered a plea of one drug count down from four, but was sued after receiving a stiff sentence that was not agreed to in the plea bargain hearing. In addition to having the suit dismissed, Ms Dugan was awarded attorney fees.  The prisoner Norris Washington, was hit with a $500 sanction for filing a "frivolous lawsuit."

Mr. Washington appealed to the Supreme Court of PA, and now Ms. Dugan has won even bigger - so much so that she says her "conscious is troubled."  Last month the court ruled unanimously that a criminal defendant could not sue his lawyer for malpractice unless his conviction was first set aside on appeal.

There is more.  To sue the lawyer for malpractice a prisoner must show that he was innocent of the crime for which convicted.  Otherwise,  the court reasoned his lawyer's negligence did him no harm.

The decision, a stunning victory for Pennsylvania's criminal defense lawyers and a staggering setback for its prisoner litigants was reached without appellate briefs or oral argument. Instead, the judges read the briefs filed with common please court in Washington's case and in another prisoner's suit which had also been dismissed by the common pleas court.

Pennsylvania is not alone in trying to curtail prisoners'  lawsuits.  Alaska's supreme court and lower courts in several other states have ruled that prisoners must prevail in appealing their convictions before they can sue their lawyers.  But Pennsylvania appears to be the first state to require, in addition, that prisoners must prove their innocence before they can win suits against their lawyers See: Washington  v  Dugan, No. 1932 E.D. Misc, Docket 1993; Decided August 1994.

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Related legal case

Washington v. Dugan