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FRANK v. VOLKSWAGENWERK

September 20, 1974

GAIL ESTHER FRANK AND ROSARIA ANN MUCKIN, Plaintiffs
v.
VOLKSWAGENWERK, A.G. OF WEST GERMANY, Defendant v. ROSARIA ANN MUCKIN AND DONALD P. MILLER, Third-Party Defendants


Ditter, J.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: DITTER

DITTER, J.

 This personal injury case comes before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment based on the fact that both plaintiffs have previously compromised identical claims with the third-party defendant.

 The parents, as guardian of then-minor Frank, instituted an action in trespass against Miller in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. This action was settled pursuant to court approval on January 31, 1969. Later that year, plaintiff Muckin, also then a minor, petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County for leave to compromise and settle her claim against Miller. The petition was granted on November 5, 1969. In addition, Muckin and her parents executed a release on November 13, 1969. The present action was commenced on July 30, 1970, against Volkswagenwerk A.G. of West Germany, which manufactured the vehicle in which plaintiffs were riding.

 Plaintiffs assert that this car was not fit for the purpose for which it was intended because it was unable to sustain a collision without passenger-injury, a dangerous condition of which they had no notice. Defendant denies that the vehicle was "uncrashworthy" and also maintains that plaintiffs' recoveries from Miller preclude their present suit. Since I agree with defendant's latter position, there is no need to deal with the former.

 Frank's Settlement and Discontinuance

 It is axiomatic that an injured party is not entitled to be paid twice for the same harm. Thompson v. Fox, 326 Pa. 209, 192 A. 107 (1937). In the present matter, Frank has described the injuries for which she seeks recovery from Volkswagenwerk in exactly the same words as she used in her prior suit against Miller. *fn1" The question, therefore, is whether the court-approved settlement of that case and its being docketed as "settled, discontinued and ended" is a bar to the instant suit.

 Frank maintains that the settlement with Miller in no way fully compensated her for the damages incurred; rather it only covered the injuries caused by Miller. Moreover, she contends that since there was no judgment on the merits in the suit against Miller, the decision there is not conclusive as to the issues in this suit against Volkswagenwerk.

 This case is based upon diversity of citizenship and the law of Pennsylvania applies. Under Pennsylvania common law, a plaintiff could bring separate actions against several defendants for a joint trespass, obtain judgment against each, and issue execution on the one he found most satisfactory. Once he received payment and either gave a release or satisfied a judgment of record, he could not thereafter execute against any other defendant or bring any further suit. The bar to additional actions applied whether the negligence was joint, concurrent, or successive so long as the prior defendant was liable for the same injury.

 As it is pointed out in Hilbert v. Roth, 395 Pa. 270, 273, 149 A.2d 648 (1959), the common law rule was altered by Section 4 of the Uniform Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act of 1951, 12 P.S. § 2085, so far as releases are concerned. Under the provisions of the Act, a release of one joint tortfeasor will not discharge other joint tortfeasors *fn2" in the absence of an express provision to that effect, but the Act made no change in the Pennsylvania common law rule in so far as the satisfaction of a judgment is concerned. Therefore, although an injured party may get a judgment against several joint tortfeasors, if one of those judgments is satisfied, every other joint tortfeasor is released from his obligation toward the injured party.

 Does the same rule apply if the prior suit is settled rather than being contested to judgment?

 In Albright v. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 350 F. Supp. 341 (W.D. Pa. 1972), aff'd, 485 F.2d 678 (3d Cir. 1973), the plaintiff's automobile struck a street excavation and he sued the City of Pittsburgh in the Court of Common Pleas for the resulting damages. Among the alleged injuries the plaintiff suffered was the development of lung cancer. While the first suit was pending, the plaintiff instituted another suit in federal court against R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company claiming that its cigarettes also helped cause his lung cancer. The plaintiff then settled the action against the City of Pittsburgh and the court marked the docket "Settled and Discontinued."

 Judge Weber held that the marking of the docket "Settled and Discontinued" had the same effect as a satisfaction of a judgment. Therefore, he reasoned, since the plaintiff had received satisfaction for his claim of lung cancer from the City of Pittsburgh he had thereby released Reynolds from any liability for the same injury. The court went on to state that if the plaintiff did not feel he was receiving full satisfaction for his cancer claim he could have specifically reserved his claim against other tortfeasors such as Reynolds.

 In attempting to deny the applicability of Albright to this case, Frank attacks the rationale of that decision by claiming Judge Weber misinterpreted certain Pennsylvania cases. I do not find this argument persuasive for a careful consideration of recent cases, especially Hilbert v. Roth, supra, leads me to agree with Judge Weber's sound ...


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