A state appeals court says public defenders can be sued by former clients if they don’t do an adequate job for them.

It’s the first ruling of its kind in Missouri. State prison inmate Bernardo Costa, who’s serving time for statutory rape, says his public defender failed to call some witnesses Costa wanted to testify on his behalf during his sentencing hearing.

The court ruling says the responsibility of a public defender is no less than the responsibility carried by a privately-hired lawyer. The appeals court has ordered a lower court to hear Costa’s lawsuit.