Your duty to read the document you are signing

 In Legal Malpractice

Does a client have a duty to read the document they are signing? Consider the following hypothetical. A lawyer represents a party in a divorce case. The parties reach a settlement, which is committed to writing by the lawyers for each of the parties. Each party, to some degree, reviews the settlement agreement, initials each page, and signs at the end. Later, the ex-husband claims that he didn’t understand his support payment obligation described in the settlement document he signed. The court says tough, holds the husband in contempt and sanctions him for not meeting his payment obligations under the divorce settlement agreement. So the husband sues the lawyer for legal malpractice claiming the lawyer committed an error in the way he prepared the settlement agreement. Does the ex-husband have a case?

Ambiguous, technical, or legal jargon

In Georgia, the ex-husband probably would not have a case. Why? Because we are usually required to read what we’re signing. Most people would agree that this general rule seems fair enough.

But there are limits to this rule, of course. If the contract or document is ambiguous, technical, or contains legal jargon, the complaining party might have an argument. And there are many documents that are long, confusing, and full of legalese and mumbo-jumbo. Few ordinary folks, and maybe even some lawyers, could explain, much less fully understand, a typical cell phone contract, for example!

The lawyer’s duty to draft documents properly

And an attorney may not be able to escape their duty to draft documents properly. If the lawyer drafts the document improperly, they could be held liable even if the party read it and signed it. This is also true if there is some “legal effect” that flowed from the language of the document, which an ordinary party wouldn’t be aware of.

One place this can arise is in personal injury cases. Be careful about settling the liability claim with a general release. Such a full release can foreclose your right to recover under your UM insurance policy. Make sure your lawyers are drafting, and you’re signing, a “limited liability release” in that case. If you don’t have UM coverage, it may not matter, but there is no real reason to give a liability carrier a general release. And, most importantly, ask your lawyers questions about what you are signing so that you make certain you are understanding the document you are signing. If you are the lawyer preparing the document for your client, make sure you review the document thoroughly with your client, and give your client plenty of time to review the document and ask questions.  It may also be wise in some circumstances to note the details of the client’s review and questions.

What you do for a living may make a difference

One final cautionary note. The party’s level of education and sophistication may make a big difference. If you’re a lawyer yourself, or have many years of experience in the subject matter of the document you are signing, you could be charged with a duty of reading and understanding what you’re signing. So be careful!

Chandler & Moore Law focuses on professional liability and serious personal injury matters. We talk with many potential clients about issues like the above, so feel free to contact us for an evaluation of whether you may have viable claim or a defense to a claim.

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