In Flores v. Branscomb PC, before her death, the decedent hired counsel to prepare a new will. No. 13-18-00411-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 4612 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi June 10, 2021, no pet. history). The new will would have named the decedent’s granddaughter as her executor and as a beneficiary. The decedent died before signing the new will, and the granddaughter sued the decedent’s attorneys for malpractice. The attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they owed no duty to the granddaughter. The trial court granted the summary judgment, and the granddaughter appealed. The court first discussed the estate planning privity rule:

Legal malpractice claims sound in tort. To establish such a claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the attorney owed the plaintiff a duty; (2) the attorney breached that duty, (3) the breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries; and (4) damages occurred. Id. While an attorney owes a duty of care to a client, no such duty is owed to non-clients, even if they are damaged by the attorney’s malpractice. The existence of duty is a question of law when all of the essential facts are undisputed.

In Barcelo v. Elliott, the Texas Supreme Court declined to create an exception to the attorney duty limitation in the estate planning context. 923 S.W.2d 575, 579 (Tex. 1996). Specifically, the court held that an attorney retained by a testator to draft a will owes no professional duty of care to persons named as beneficiaries under the will. Id. The court reasoned that the threat of lawsuits by disappointed heirs after a client’s death could create conflicts during the estate planning process and divide the attorney’s loyalty between the client and potential beneficiaries. Id. at 578. In reaching its holding, the court contemplated a scenario similar to the present case:

In most cases where a defect renders a will or trust invalid, however, there are concomitant questions as to the true intentions of the testator. Suppose, for example, that a properly drafted will is simply not executed at the time of the testator’s death. The document may express the testator’s true intentions, lacking signatures solely because of the attorney’s negligent delay. On the other hand, the testator may have postponed execution because of second thoughts regarding the distribution scheme. In the latter situation, the attorney’s representation of the testator will likely be affected if he or she knows that the existence of an unexecuted will may create malpractice liability if the testator unexpectedly dies.

. . . .

In sum, we are unable to craft a bright-line rule that allows a lawsuit to proceed where alleged malpractice causes a will or trust to fail in a manner that casts no real doubt on the testator’s intentions, while prohibiting actions in other situations. We believe the greater good is served by preserving a bright-line privity rule which denies a cause of action to all beneficiaries whom the attorney did not represent. This will ensure that attorneys may in all cases zealously represent their clients without the threat of suit from third parties compromising that representation.

Id. at 578-79 (emphasis added).

Since Barcelo, the Texas Supreme Court has recognized two scenarios in which a non-client can bring a legal malpractice claim against an estate planning attorney. First, an estate representative may bring a legal malpractice action for damage to the estate. Second, an executor of a will may bring suit for malpractice committed by a decedent’s attorney outside of the estate-planning context. Neither scenario concerns Flores’s claims in this case.

Id.

The granddaughter argued that the estate planning privity rule did not apply, because an implied attorney-client relationship existed between her and the attorneys. The court acknowledged that there were implied attorney/client relationships, and held that “[t]o support an implied attorney-client relationship, there must be evidence that both parties intended to create the relationship.” Id. The court held that there was no evidence that the law firm ever manifested an intent to provide legal services to the granddaughter or that they reasonably should have known that she was relying on them in that regard. The court held that the granddaughter’s subjective belief that the law firm represented her was insufficient to establish an implied attorney-client relationship. The court affirmed the judgment for the law firm.

Photo of David Fowler Johnson David Fowler Johnson

dfjohnson@winstead.com
817.420.8223

David maintains an active trial and appellate practice and has consistently worked on financial institution litigation matters throughout his career. David is the primary author of the The Fiduciary Litigator blog, which reports on legal cases and issues impacting the fiduciary…

dfjohnson@winstead.com
817.420.8223

David maintains an active trial and appellate practice and has consistently worked on financial institution litigation matters throughout his career. David is the primary author of the The Fiduciary Litigator blog, which reports on legal cases and issues impacting the fiduciary field in Texas. Read More

David’s financial institution experience includes (but is not limited to): breach of contract, foreclosure litigation, lender liability, receivership and injunction remedies upon default, non-recourse and other real estate lending, class action, RICO actions, usury, various tort causes of action, breach of fiduciary duty claims, and preference and other related claims raised by receivers.

David also has experience in estate and trust disputes including will contests, mental competency issues, undue influence, trust modification/clarification, breach of fiduciary duty and related claims, and accountings. David’s recent trial experience includes:

  • Representing a bank in federal class action suit where trust beneficiaries challenged whether the bank was the authorized trustee of over 220 trusts;
  • Representing a bank in state court regarding claims that it mismanaged oil and gas assets;
  • Representing a bank who filed suit in probate court to modify three trusts to remove a charitable beneficiary that had substantially changed operations;
  • Represented an individual executor of an estate against claims raised by a beneficiary for breach of fiduciary duty and an accounting; and
  • Represented an individual trustee against claims raised by a beneficiary for breach of fiduciary duty, mental competence of the settlor, and undue influence.

David is one of twenty attorneys in the state (of the 84,000 licensed) that has the triple Board Certification in Civil Trial Law, Civil Appellate and Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Additionally, David is a member of the Civil Trial Law Commission of the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. This commission writes and grades the exam for new applicants for civil trial law certification.

David maintains an active appellate practice, which includes:

  • Appeals from final judgments after pre-trial orders such as summary judgments or after jury trials;
  • Interlocutory appeals dealing with temporary injunctions, arbitration, special appearances, sealing the record, and receiverships;
  • Original proceedings such as seeking and defending against mandamus relief; and
  • Seeking emergency relief staying trial court’s orders pending appeal or mandamus.

For example, David was the lead appellate lawyer in the Texas Supreme Court in In re Weekley Homes, LP, 295 S.W.3d 309 (Tex. 2009). The Court issued a ground-breaking opinion in favor of David’s client regarding the standards that a trial court should follow in ordering the production of computers in discovery.

David previously taught Appellate Advocacy at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law located in Fort Worth. David is licensed and has practiced in the U.S. Supreme Court; the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Federal Circuits; the Federal District Courts for the Northern, Eastern, and Western Districts of Texas; the Texas Supreme Court and various Texas intermediate appellate courts. David also served as an adjunct professor at Baylor University Law School, where he taught products liability and portions of health law. He has authored many legal articles and spoken at numerous legal education courses on both trial and appellate issues. His articles have been cited as authority by the Texas Supreme Court (twice) and the Texas Courts of Appeals located in Waco, Texarkana, Beaumont, Tyler and Houston (Fourteenth District), and a federal district court in Pennsylvania. David’s articles also have been cited by McDonald and Carlson in their Texas Civil Practice treatise, William v. Dorsaneo in the Texas Litigation Guide, and various authors in the Baylor Law ReviewSt. Mary’s Law JournalSouth Texas Law Review and Tennessee Law Review.

Representative Experience

  • Civil Litigation and Appellate Law