Knutson v. FosterAnnotate this Case
As a high school student in North Dakota, Dagny Knutson was an internationally ranked swimmer. She committed to Auburn University because one of its coaches, Paul Yetter. In March 2010, Mark Schubert, USA Swimming’s head coach, told Knutson that Yetter was leaving Auburn University. Schubert advised Knutson to swim professionally rather than at Auburn or another university. He orally promised her support to train at a “Center for Excellence” formed by USA Swimming in Fullerton, California, including room, board, tuition, and a stipend until she earned her degree. At Schubert’s suggestion, Knutson retained a sports agent, and shortly thereafter, she turned professional, accepted prize money, and signed an endorsement agreement. A few months after Knutson moved to Fullerton, Schubert’s employment was terminated by USA Swimming. Schubert told Knutson not to worry, and assured her that USA Swimming would keep the promises he had made to her. However, Knutson became concerned because she was not receiving any money from USA Swimming. Knutson retained attorney Foster to represent her in an attempt to get USA Swimming to honor the oral agreement made by Schubert. Foster did not disclose to Knutson his close personal ties to the aquatics world, or that he had long-time relationships with USA Swimming, and other swimming organizations. Knutson testified that Foster never told her that he represented Schubert or that he declined to represent Schubert against USA Swimming because he felt there was a conflict of interest due to his relationships with people within USA Swimming. In September 2014, Knutson sued Foster for fraudulent concealment and breach of fiduciary duty. After a three-week trial, the jury found in favor of Knutson and awarded her economic and noneconomic damages. The trial court granted Foster’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that Knutson did not prove Foster’s conduct was the cause of Knutson’s damages and that Knutson had failed to offer substantial evidence of her emotional distress damages. The Court of Appeal reversed and reinstated the jury's verdict because the motion for a new trial was granted on erroneous legal theories. The Court held: (1) claims of fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of fiduciary duty by a client against his or her attorney are subject to the substantial factor causation standard, not the “but for” or “trial within a trial” causation standard employed in cases of legal malpractice based on negligence; and (2) where the plaintiff’s emotional distress consisted of anxiety, shame, a sense of betrayal, and a continuing impact on personal relationships, the testimony of the plaintiff alone was sufficient to support emotional distress damages.