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Little v. Dresser Industries Inc.

decided: June 7, 1979.

FRANCIS J. LITTLE AND REGINA LITTLE, HIS WIFE, APPELLANTS
v.
DRESSER INDUSTRIES, INC., SUCCESSOR TO MANNING, MAXWELL & MOORE, INC. (DRESSER CRANE & HOIST DIV. AND DRESSER CRANE HOIST & TOWER DIV.) AND MANNING, MAXWELL & MOORE, INC. (MANNING, MAXWELL & MOORE CRANE & HOIST DIV.), APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 77-999)

Before Adams, Gibbons and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

In this appeal, plaintiff contends that two wrongs do not give a right entitling the defendants to joint tortfeasor status. We agree that a release settling a state claim for personal injuries and naming defendants in that suit as well as "any other person . . . chargeable with responsibility" does not benefit defendants in federal litigation over bodily injury incurred in a later, unrelated incident. Moreover, since the consideration recited in the release does not approximate the true value of both claims, the plaintiff is not barred in the federal suit from recovering damages for injuries sustained to the same part of the body as in the state court litigation. Accordingly, the summary judgment in favor of the defendants entered by the district court on the basis of the release will be vacated.

Plaintiff brought suit in the district court alleging that in September 1975 he incurred back injuries caused by defective equipment manufactured by the defendants.*fn1 Pending at the time was a state court suit*fn2 in which plaintiff also claimed back injuries from being struck by an automobile in August 1969. In a pretrial memorandum filed in the state court, plaintiff asserted a causal connection between the injuries received in 1969 and those suffered in 1975. After a release was executed, the state case was settled in 1978 and the defendants in the federal suit moved for summary judgment, claiming to be beneficiaries of the release.

Plaintiff moved for reformation of the release in the state court to make it clear that only the defendants in the automobile claim were absolved of liability. But before the state court could reach the reformation suit, the district court granted summary judgment for the products liability defendants, ruling that the plaintiff's recovery of the consideration stated in the release was redress for both claims. A few weeks later, the state court reformed the original release, limiting its effect to the automobile accident defendants. The district court, however, refused to reconsider its grant of summary judgment.

The plaintiff was represented by different counsel in the two suits and there is nothing in the record to suggest that there was communication between the lawyers about the pretrial statement in the state court or about the terms of the release executed in settlement of that claim. The pretrial statement itemized medical expenses and loss of wages from August 1969 through 1970 totaling $5,636.50. In addition, the memorandum alleged the plaintiff aggravated his pre-existing back condition at work in September 1975 and that as a result three intervertebral discs were removed and a spinal fusion was performed.*fn3 Medical expenses incurred after September 1975 were more than $16,000 and lost wages, exclusive of a claim for future losses were claimed to be $16,400.

The release recited a consideration of $14,000, named the defendants in the state court suit, and absolved

"any other person . . . corporation or other entity charged or chargeable with responsibility or liability . . . of and from all . . . liability . . . especially for personal injuries sustained in an accident which occurred on or about August 13, 1969, at or near Richmond Street . . . Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a result of which suit was instituted in the Court of Common Pleas, June Term, 1971, No. 4929."

In granting summary judgment, the district judge observed that in the state court the plaintiff had maintained that all of the injuries arising out of the 1975 products liability accident were proximately caused by, and therefore chargeable to, the automobile-collision defendants. Answering interrogatories in that suit, the plaintiff had said

"the incident of 9/13/75 (the products liability accident) aggravated a pre-existing condition which was caused by the accident of 8/13/69, that is the new conditions were superimposed on a pre-existing condition, and, therefore, the Defendant in this (automobile accident) case may be held responsible."

The district court decided to take the plaintiff at his word, despite his questionable legal reasoning. Because the plaintiff had asserted that the injuries claimed in the products liability case were also the responsibility of the automobile defendants, a full settlement had been negotiated, and the release included "any other person" liable, the court concluded that there could not be a second recovery.

Before Pennsylvania adopted the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 12, §§ 2082-2089, Reenacted and now codified at 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. §§ 8321-8327 (Purdon 1978), the release of one joint tortfeasor released all. Although the statute changed that general principle,*fn4 in Hasselrode v. Gnagey, 404 Pa. 549, 172 A.2d 764 (1961), the state supreme court held that a release which specifically names one joint tortfeasor and "any and all other persons," discharges the liability of all joint tortfeasors to the injured party.

Were the federal defendants joint tortfeasors in the automobile accident underlying the state court suit, clearly the language in the general release executed by the plaintiff would bar recovery against defendants here. See Frank v. Volkswagenwerk, A. G., 522 F.2d 321, 328 (3d Cir. 1975). But as noted by Dean Prosser, the term "joint tortfeasor" is "one of those unhappy phrases of indeterminate meaning, whose repetition has ...


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