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Luscher v. One Beacon Insurance Group

February 25, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herbert Kramer, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed Official Reports.

Is the doctrine of collateral estoppel available to a nonparty witness who seeks to quash a subpoena ad testificandum that issued in a legal malpractice action?

The defendants in this legal malpractice action seek to take the deposition of nonparty, Anibal Arrua by subpoena.*fn1 On January 20, 2009, the witness by his attorney made a motion to quash the subpoena relying upon the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

In the suit which is the predicate for the malpractice action, Anibal Arrua sued the plaintiff herein (Luscher) in New York County for damages, alleging that Luscher had driven his car across a double yellow line and hit his car head on. Arrua moved for summary judgment making these allegations in an affidavit and Luscher, represented by the defendants herein, did not, according to the motion court, "oppose the motion with an affidavit of someone with personal knowledge of the accident." Accordingly, the motion court granted the plaintiff-Arrua summary judgment as to liability.

The complaint in the instant legal malpractice action charges the defendants with negligence for failing to investigate the facts, for failing to inquire as to the plaintiff's recollection of the facts or state a legally acceptable reason for the failure to controvert the facts. The complaint alleges that had the motion been properly opposed, partial summary judgment would not have been granted.*fn2 A subsequent action commenced by Luscher in Suffolk County against Arrua was dismissed on res judicata grounds at the appellate level, leaving Luscher without recourse.*fn3

"A party seeking discovery from a nonparty witness must show special circumstances. The existence of such special circumstances is not established merely upon a showing that the information sought is relevant. Rather, special circumstances are shown by establishing that the information sought cannot be obtained from other sources." (Lanzello v. Lakritz, 287 AD2d 601[2d Dept. 2001]).

Defendants argue that they need to depose Arrua in the instant action because he was never actually deposed with respect to liability in the predicate action and the affidavit he submitted with his summary judgment motion did not provide any information about the details of the collision; the lights on the road, the traffic signs, the speed of the vehicles or whether he uses glasses or contacts and whether he is familiar with the area. Defendants argue that this information cannot be obtained from other sources because their former client, Luscher, did not have any memory of the accident.*fn4 The witness argues that the facts and circumstances of the underlying accident were already decided in the predicate action and consequently the defendants are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel from taking his testimony.

In order to defend a legal malpractice action, the defendants must show that they were not negligent or that their negligence was not the but for cause of the plaintiff's failure to prevail in the underlying action. (Wray v. Mallilo & Grossman, 54 AD3d 328[2d Dept. 2008]). The appropriate analysis in a legal malpractice case does not include or permit a collateral attack upon the underlying judgment. Thus although New York's liberal discovery rules require "disclosure upon request of any facts bearing on the controversy," Allen v. Crowell-Collier Publishing Co., 21 NY2d 403[1968], the discovery of facts and circumstances whose sole purpose is to launch a collateral attack on the underlying judgment by revealing possible defenses to the predicate action does not fall within this rubric. The information sought to be obtained from this witness with respect to the circumstances attendant at the time of the collision would serve only to undermine the judgment in the predicate action and thus is not relevant here.

What is relevant here in light of the plaintiff's asserted loss of memory, is the effect of the failure to properly invoke the Noseworthy doctrine.*fn5 This is certainly not an area upon which the sought after testimony could shed any light.

The motion is granted.

This constitutes the decision and order ...

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