On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
McElroy, Dreier and Shebell. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
Defendant, Laszlo Zacharias, Jr., has appealed*fn1 from an order of the Law Division dismissing his third-party complaint against Jon Auty and Marc Allen Chase, for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Patricia Malewich had been represented by Zacharias in a matrimonial action in which she was the plaintiff. She discharged him and later filed this legal malpractice action against him. Zacharias in turn filed the third-party action against Auty and Chase. Auty represented plaintiff's ex-husband, Robert Malewich, in the matrimonial action; Chase was retained to represent plaintiff in the matrimonial proceedings after Zacharias was discharged.
The malpractice complaint alleges that defendant failed to appear for trial or notify plaintiff of her trial date in the divorce action and, as a result of her nonappearance, her ex-husband obtained a judgment against her in the sum of $23,136.50. After the entry of that judgment and Zacharias was dismissed, plaintiff retained Chase who attempted to vacate the judgment and negotiated a settlement for $7,500. Chase's law firm thereafter instituted the malpractice suit against defendant.
The divorce was granted based upon plaintiff's ex-husband's counterclaim to which a claim for divorce was added by motion granted November 22, 1982. It appears that Zacharias received
a notice dated November 11, 1982 establishing a trial date of January 5, 1983. Neither he nor his client appeared and the court proceeded to hear her husband and his counsel. On January 18, 1983 the trial judge signed an order dissolving the marriage, equally distributing the parties' assets of $39,401, directing the husband's jewelry to be returned to him and assessing $3,000 damages plus interest against plaintiff on a tort counterclaim. Plaintiff claims that had Zacharias properly represented her she would have been present to refute all claims that she was indebted to defendant and even could have shown that he was indebted to her. Zacharias claims that her new attorney acted negligently in failing to vacate the judgments entered against plaintiff and in settling the suit for $7,500.
We find no merit in the third-party complaint against Chase, whose representation commenced after Zacharias' dismissal. When assessing the possibilities of obtaining a vacation of the original judgment, he was responsible solely to his client, who has not complained about that settlement. Zacharias can claim the benefit of this settlement, since the damages for plaintiff's pecuniary loss will be limited as a result of Chase's efforts.
We determine that third-party defendant Chase owed no duty to Zacharias under the facts of this case. We have reviewed the standards of Wytupeck v. Camden, 25 N.J. 450, 461-462 (1957):
"Duty" is not an abstract conception; and the standard of conduct is not an absolute. Duty arises out of a relation between the particular parties that in right reason and essential justice enjoins the protection of the one by the other against what the law by common consent deems an unreasonable risk of harm, such as is reasonably foreseeable, Lokar v. Church of the Sacred Heart, 24 N.J. 549 (1957). In the field of negligence, duty signifies conformance "to the legal standard of reasonable conduct in the light of the apparent risk"; the essential question is whether "the plaintiff's interests are entitled to legal protection against the defendant's conduct." Prosser on Torts (2d ed.), section
36. Duty is largely grounded in the natural responsibilities of social living and human relations, such as have the recognition of reasonable men; and fulfillment is had by a correlative standard of conduct.
We have applied these standards and, finding no duty existed, agree with the trial court's determination that the third-party complaint against Chase did not state ...