Budd v. Nixen

Decision Date02 December 1971
Citation6 Cal.3d 195,98 Cal.Rptr. 849
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 491 P.2d 433 William A. BUDD, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Alan NIXEN, Respondent and Defendant. L.A. 29870

Hunt, Liljestrom & Wentworth and Vernon W. Hunt, Jr., Santa Ana, for plaintiff and appellant.

Groff, Dunne, Shallcross & Kane and Russell E. Shallcross, Los Angeles, for defendant and respondent.

TOBRINER, Justice.

This case is a companion to Neel v. Magana, Olney, Levy, Cathcart & Gelfand, Cal., 98 Cal.Rptr. 837, 491 P.2d 421, also decided today. In Neel we conclude that the statute of limitations for legal malpractice, as for all professional malpractice, commences to run when the client discovers, or should reasonably discover, his cause of action. Plaintiff here discovered the malpractice on September 14, 1964, but did not bring suit until September 11, 1967, almost three years later. The case must turn, therefore, upon the issue of when the cause of action accrued. If plaintiff suffered damage and thus acquired an accrued cause of action prior to September 11, 1965, the applicable two-year statute of limitations would have run before he filed his action. Since this issue arises only because of today's ruling in Neel the trial court naturally did not probe that problem but, instead, held that the cause of action matured at the time of the negligent act. We hold that a cause of action for legal malpractice does not accrue until the client suffers damage and that the determination of that date raises an issue of fact. We must therefore reverse the judgment of that court and remand the cause for further proceedings.

On November 8, 1962, William A. Budd, plaintiff in the present case, was president and a stockholder of a corporation known as Hawarden Hills, Inc. in Riverside, California. On that date the corporation entered into a written agreement with Albert Milburn, a licensed real estate broker, to list certain real property for sale. Thereafter a dispute arose between Milburn and the corporation concerning the contract. As a consequence, Milburn instituted an action on February 5, 1963, in Riverside County Superior Court against the corporation; its president, William A. Budd; its vice-president; its secretary-treasurer; and a number of Does. The complaint alleged a breach of the contract between Milburn and Hawarden Hills; the plaintiff likewise sought to impose personal liability for the corporation's alleged breach of contract on Budd and the other officers of Hawarden Hills.

The corporation then retained Alan Nixen, defendant in the present case, to defend the action against it. On May 3, 1963, Nixen filed an answer on behalf of the corporation alone, admitting that the corporation had executed the agreement but denying any breach or liability. At the same time, Nixen filed a cross-complaint, naming the corporation, Budd, and the other corporate officers as cross-complainants. In July, Nixen told Budd that he should file an answer to the Milburn complaint in his individual capacity; Budd then retained Nixen on July 31, 1963, to represent him in defense of the Milburn claim. Although the attorney subsequently filed an answer for Budd, that answer lacked any allegation that Budd had signed the contract with Milburn only in his capacity as president of the corporation and therefore bore no personal liability on the contract.

Proceeding to trial by the court on April 14, 1964, the case was submitted on April 27, 1964. While the suit still remained under submission, on September 15, 1964, Budd relieved Nixen as his attorney of record, retained R. T. Deissler, another attorney, and discovered the alleged negligence of his first attorney.

On October 28, 1964, the trial court filed the following memorandum order: 'Court orders judgment in favor of plaintiff and against defendants in the sum of $75,000.00. Plaintiff's counsel to prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law, and formal judgment.' To relieve Budd of the failure to plead a crucial defense in the action, the new attorney, Deissler, filed an opposition to proposed findings of fact on March 26, 1965. Nevertheless, the trial court adopted the prevailing party's findings and conclusions, entering judgment against both the corporation and Budd on November 4, 1965.

Deissler then filed Budd's motion for new trial, but it was denied. 1 Budd's notice of appeal was belatedly filed, and on September 7, 1966, his appeal was dismissed. Remittitur later issued as to the remaining defendants. Budd was compelled to pay Milburn $38,450.61 of the $75,000 judgment.

On September 11, 1967, Budd filed the instant action in Riverside Superior Court against his former attorney Nixen to recover damages resulting from the judgment rendered against him. The trial court, however, sustained Nixen's motion for a summary judgment on the ground that the statute of limitations barred plaintiff's cause of action, stating that 'the two-year period which governs a legal malpractice action, runs from the time of the negligent act and not from the time of discovery or the time damages are ascertained.' 2

For breaches of oral contracts and for torts affecting intangible property, such as occurred in the present case, Code of Civil Procedure section 339 prescribes a two-year limitation period. (See Alter v. Michael (1966) 64 Cal.2d 480, 483, 50 Cal.Rptr. 553, 413 P.2d 153.) In Neel we concluded that the statute of limitations did not begin to run upon a cause of action until the client discovered or should reasonably have discovered, that he had an actionable claim for professional malpractice. (Neel v. Magana, et al., Cal., 98 Cal.Rptr. p. 845, 491 P.2d p. 429.) In the present case, however, we deal with a situation in which the client contends that although he discovered his attorney's negligence, he had not, at that time, suffered consequential damages; hence, at that date he did not have an accrued cause of action for professional negligence.

Code of Civil Procedure section 312 provides, 'Civil actions, without exception, can only be commenced within the periods prescribed in this title, After the cause of action shall have accrued, unless where, in special cases, a different limitation is prescribed by statute.' The elements of a cause of action in tort for professional negligence are: (1) the duty of the professional to use such skill, prudence, and diligence as other members of his profession commonly possess and exercise; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a proximate causal connection between the negligent conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the professional's negligence. (Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971), § 30 at p. 143; see Lucas v. Hamm (1961) 56 Cal.2d 583, 591, 15 Cal.Rptr. 821, 364 P.2d 685; Chavez v. Carter (1967) 256 Cal.App.2d 577, 579, 64 Cal.Rptr. 350; Ishmael v. Millington (1966) 241 Cal.App.2d 520, 523, 50 Cal.Rptr. 592; Modica v. Crist (1954) 129 Cal.App.2d 144, 146, 276 P.2d 614; McGregor v. Wright (1931) 117 Cal.App. 186, 193, 3 P.2d 624.)

If the allegedly negligent conduct does not cause damage, it generates no cause of action in tort. (See Developments in the Law--Statute of Limitations (1950) 63 Harv.L.Rev. 1177, 1201.) The mere breach of a professional duty, causing only nominal damages, speculative harm, or the threat of future harm--not yet realized--does not suffice to create a cause of action for negligence. (Walker v. Pacific Indemnity Co. (1960) 183 Cal.App.2d 513, 517, 6 Cal.Rptr. 924; McGregor v. Wright (1931) 117 Cal.App. 186, 196--198, 3 P.2d 624.) Hence, until the client suffers appreciable harm as a consequence of his attorney's negligence, the client cannot establish a cause of action for malpractice. 3 Prosser states the proposition succinctly, 'It follows that the statute of limitations does not begin to run against a negligence action until some damage has occurred.' (Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971), § 30 at p. 144.)

The cause of action arises, however, before the client sustains all, or even the greater part, of the damages occasioned by his attorney's negligence. (See Sonbergh v. MacQuarrie (1952) 112 Cal.App.2d 771, 773, 247 P.2d 133; Wood v. Currey (1881) 57 Cal. 208, 210.) Any appreciable and actual harm flowing from the attorney's negligent conduct establishes a cause of action upon which the client may sue.

Indeed, once having discovered his attorney's negligence and having suffered some damage, the client must institute his action within the time prescribed in the statute of limitations or he will be barred from thereafter complaining of his attorney's conduct. (See Code Civ.Proc., § 312; Maguire v. Hibernia Savings & Loan Soc. (1944) 23 Cal.2d 719, 733--736, 146 P.2d 673.) Ordinarily the client has already suffered damage when he discovers his attorney's negligence, as occurred in Neel v. Magana, Olney, Levy, Cathcart & Gelfand, Cal., 98 Cal.Rptr. pp. 837, 844, 491 P.2d pp. 421, 428.

In other cases, the infliction of the damage will alert the client to the attorney's negligence and thus the statute of limitations will then begin to run on any malpractice action. Only in the unusual case will the client discover his attorney's negligence without having suffered any consequential damage.

In the instant case, the facts may demonstrate that plaintiff suffered damage when, as he alleges in his complaint, he was compelled to 'incur and pay attorney's fees and legal costs and expenditures.' In response to interrogatories, plaintiff declared these fees included a fee of $1,028 paid to defendant on April 14, 1964, another fee of $475.38 paid defendant on September 14, 1964, a fee of $500 paid to attorney Deissler on September 14, 1964, as well as other fees paid to Deissler on October 8, 1964, November 20, 1964, December 31, 1964, and March 22, 1965. 4 If the facts show that defendant's negligence caused plaintiff to incur or pay such fees on or before September 11, 1965,...

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