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american lawyer media news service San francisco-A unanimous California Supreme Court has ruled that lawyers cannot be held liable for punitive damages allegedly lost because of their own negligence or incompetence. Three of the justices issued a separate opinion in which they concurred with the majority but said they would have preferred it if the June 9 ruling was limited to malpractice cases filed in regard to class actions. In Ferguson v. Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, No. 03 C.D.O.S. 4870, Brent Ferguson and Florencia Prieto sued Lieff Cabraser of San Francisco and other class counsel for agreeing to drop punitive damages claims in order to seal an $80 million global settlement with the Union Oil Co. of California. Ferguson and Prieto got a total of $225,000 in compensatory damages, but had wanted to pursue punitive damages to punish Unocal for a 1994 accident that released 100 tons of toxic chemicals from a facility near Crockett, Calif., for 16 days. The two, who lived nearby at the time, were among only eight of about 12,000 plaintiffs who opposed the settlement. Affirming the lower courts, the California Supreme Court agreed, making clear that allowing lawyers to be sued for lost punitive damages would violate public policy by punishing the wrong party.

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