Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court
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The defendant, Charles Geoffrey Santoro, was convicted of negligent homicide after a retrial. The case stemmed from an incident at a bar where Santoro and another patron, Levi, had a confrontation. Santoro claimed that Levi choked him, leading him to reverse his truck in an attempt to escape, which resulted in Levi being run over and killed.In the first trial, Santoro was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, with five years suspended and no parole restriction. However, this conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court of the State of Montana due to ineffective assistance of counsel.In the retrial, the District Court granted the State's motion to exclude expert testimony on the effects of strangulation, which had been admitted in the first trial. Santoro was again convicted and this time sentenced to 20 years in prison with a full 20-year parole restriction.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana found that the District Court abused its discretion by excluding the expert testimony on strangulation. The court held that this testimony was relevant and could have assisted the jury in determining whether Santoro's actions were a "gross deviation" from that of a reasonable person in Santoro's situation. The court also found that the State's enhanced sentencing recommendation after retrial was vindictive and that the District Court erred by failing to allow Santoro the opportunity to speak prior to sentencing. The court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Santoro" on Justia Law

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The case involves Clark Ryan Ramsey, an attorney who represented Justin Kalina in a felony assault case. Jessica Foote, a witness in the assault case, was investigated for alleged theft from Kalina's Uber Eats account, but no charges were brought against her. Ramsey sought information from the prosecutor in the assault case that had been gathered in the theft investigation, which he believed could be used to impeach Foote. He submitted a modified form to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) requesting copies of the Confidential Criminal Justice Information (CCJI) in the theft case, noting he sought copies of CCJI regarding Foote. The YCSO disseminated the CCJI to Ramsey.The State filed a motion in the Justice Court, seeking to charge Ramsey with misdemeanor forgery and misdemeanor solicitation of the misuse of confidential criminal justice information, stemming from Ramsey’s submission of the form to the YCSO and subsequent receipt of CCJI from that agency. Ramsey filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting the matter must be dismissed due to a lack of probable cause because, as a matter of law, the State could not prove the elements of forgery or solicitation. The Justice Court denied Ramsey’s motion to dismiss.Ramsey then petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of Montana for a writ of supervisory control directing the Yellowstone County Justice Court to reverse its order denying Ramsey’s motion to dismiss. The Supreme Court found that there was not probable cause to believe Ramsey committed either offense charged in this case and the Justice Court should not have granted the State’s motion for leave to file a complaint. The Supreme Court accepted and granted Ramsey’s petition, reversed the Justice Court’s finding of probable cause and accompanying order allowing filing of amended complaint, and remanded the matter to the Justice Court with instructions to dismiss. View "Ramsey v. Yellowstone County Justice Court" on Justia Law

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Duane Burchill was convicted of two counts of robbery, one count of conspiracy to commit deceptive practices, and one count of possession of dangerous drugs in 2017. Following his conviction, Burchill filed a petition for postconviction relief, asserting that his counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor’s misconduct during his trial. The Supreme Court of the State of Montana affirmed the denial of Burchill's petition for postconviction relief.Burchill's claim of ineffective assistance centered on two main arguments. First, he argued that the prosecutor repeatedly asked him to comment on the credibility of other witnesses by asking "were they lying" questions. Second, he alleged that the prosecutor posed questions suggesting his personal opinion that Burchill's testimony was not truthful.The court, however, found that the "were they lying" questions were not improper because they had probative value in evaluating the credibility of a defendant who is claiming that everyone else is lying. The court also disagreed that the prosecutor had expressed personal opinions on Burchill's credibility. The court concluded that the prosecutor's questions were within the scope of permissible questions allowed on cross-examination. Therefore, the court found that Burchill's counsel's failure to object did not constitute ineffective assistance.The court did not find it necessary to address Burchill's claim of prejudice due to the failure of his counsel to object, as it had already determined that his counsel's performance was not deficient. Thus, Burchill's petition for postconviction relief was denied. View "Burchill v. State" on Justia Law

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David Abraham Lorenz was convicted in 2003 for operating an illegal drug lab and possessing illegal drugs in the state of Montana. His initial sentence was partially suspended, but multiple violations led to the suspension being lifted and further sentencing in 2005 and 2014. In 2020, the State sought to revoke his suspended sentences again. Lorenz, who initially represented himself, requested counsel in July 2021. However, prior to the dispositional hearing in August 2021, his attorney, Michael Haase, filed a motion to withdraw. Lorenz consented to this but then indicated he did not want to proceed without a lawyer. Despite a perceived conflict, Haase continued to represent Lorenz in the hearing, and Lorenz was resentenced after his suspended sentences were revoked.Lorenz appealed, arguing that the District Court had not adequately investigated his complaint about his lawyer. The Supreme Court of the State of Montana disagreed, ruling that Lorenz had not directly raised any issues about Haase's effectiveness or requested a substitution of counsel. The court further noted that Lorenz had agreed to Haase's motion to withdraw, then reaffirmed his desire for Haase's representation during the dispositional hearing. The Supreme Court thus affirmed the District Court's decision. View "State v. Lorenz" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Supreme Court of the State of Montana upheld the decision of the Montana First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, committing the appellant, C.M., a youth, to the custody of the Department of Corrections for placement in a state youth correctional facility until the age of 18. The appellant was charged with sex offenses against three of his high school classmates and he appealed the decision on the grounds that he was denied the right to effective assistance of counsel when his attorney failed to make objections to the admission of various hearsay statements.The court concluded that the appellant's counsel's failure to object to the admission of hearsay statements did not result in substantial prejudice. The court noted that the state presented sufficient admissible evidence to the jury that proved the same facts as the prior consistent statements and bus records. Furthermore, the court found that the appellant's counsel vigorously challenged the complaining witnesses' testimony by highlighting inconsistencies and gaps in their testimony, as well as aspects of the investigation. As a result, the court found that the appellant failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by any alleged deficient performance by his counsel and affirmed the lower court's decision. View "Matter of C.M" on Justia Law

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In this case, Lindsay Burns Barbier contested the validity of the 2016 will of her father, Horatio Burns, alleging that her brother Cameron and his wife Alison exerted undue influence over Horatio. The Supreme Court of the State of Montana upheld the validity of the will and the awarding of attorney fees to Horatio’s Estate, but reversed the awarding of attorney fees to Alison and the calculation of interest on the attorney fees. The court found that the lower court did not err in allowing Alison to file a response to Lindsay's petition contesting the will, despite Lindsay's objection that it was untimely and that Alison's interests were fully represented by the Estate. The court also found that Lindsay was not entitled to a new trial based on juror misconduct. In terms of attorney fees, the court determined that Alison was not entitled to an award of fees under state law as she was defending her own interest in the will and her participation was not required to defend the validity of the will. Finally, the court found that the lower court incorrectly calculated the applicable interest rate on the attorney fees awarded to the Estate. View "In re Burns" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order entered by the district court dismissing as time-barred Appellant's negligence claims against Community Hospital of Anaconda and Pintler Surgical Specialists (collectively, CHA), holding that there was no error.Specifically, the Supreme Court held that the district court (1) did not err by concluding that Appellant's claim against CHA was a professional negligence claim subject to the two-year period of limitations pursuant to Mont. Code Ann. 27-2-205(1); and (2) did not err by ruling that Appellant's medical negligence claim was not tolled under section 27-2-205(1) and dismissing the claim as time-barred. View "Selensky-Foust v. Mercer" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court dismissing Plaintiffs' legal malpractice action with prejudice, holding that the district court did not err.Plaintiffs filed this legal malpractice suit against Defendant, the law firm of their former attorney who represented them in a tort case involving a boating accident, for its failure to discover and make a claim against a homeowners insurance policy with a $500,000 policy limit. The court granted summary judgment to Defendant and dismissed Plaintiffs' complaint. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court (1) did not err in denying Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether an endorsement deleted the watercraft exclusion from the insurance policy; (2) did not err in granting summary judgment to Defendant on the issue of whether there was insurance coverage under the insurance policy for the boating accident and dismissing the legal malpractice claims; and (3) did not abuse its discretion in denying Plaintiffs' Rule 60(b) motion for relief from judgment. View "Young v. Hammer" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company and declaring that ALPS owed no duty to defend or indemnify Defendants in a malpractice suit, holding that the district court correctly granted summary judgment to ALPS.ALPS brought this action seeking a declaration that it owed no duty to defendant or indemnify Keller, Reynolds, Drake, Johnson & Gillespie, P.C. (the firm) or any of its members for claims Bryan Sandrock, GG&ME, LLC and DRAES, Inc. (collectively, Sandrock) asserted in a malpractice suit against the firm and three of its attorneys. In granting summary judgment for ALPS, the district court held that the firm's ALPS policy did not provide coverage for Sandrock's claim. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court correctly concluded that there was no coverage under the policy because a member of the firm knew the basis of the legal malpractice claim before the effective date of the policy. View "ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Co. v. Keller" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court determining that Defendant, a chiropractor, was not negligent in his care of Plaintiff, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in any of the rulings challenged by Plaintiff.Plaintiff brought this action alleging that Defendant herniated her cervical disc, did not treat her consistent with the standard of care required by a chiropractor in Montana, and was negligent in his examination and treatment of her. After denying both parties' motions for partial summary judgment a trial was held. The jury returned a special verdict finding Defendant was not negligent in his care of Plaintiff. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the district court did not err in determining that there was disputed issues of material fact as to the chiropractic standard of care and whether Defendant departed from that standard of care; (2) the court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of Defendant's habits and routine practices when treating patients; (3) the district court did not err in admitting Defendant's perpetuated expert testimony; and (4) any error in admitting alternative cause evidence or allowing Plaintiff to be impeached with her attorney's application to the Montana Chiropractic Legal Panel was harmless. View "Howlett v. Chiropractic Center, P.C." on Justia Law