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Little v. Dresser Industries Inc.


decided: June 7, 1979.



Before Adams, Gibbons and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis


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 done so much to befog the law." Prosser, Joint Torts and Several Liability, 25 Calif.L.Rev. 413, 413 (1937).

Various considerations have been proposed for determining a joint tort: the existence of a cause of action against each of two or more defendants; the presence of a like or common duty; whether the same evidence will establish liability against each; a single, indivisible injury to the plaintiff; identity of the facts as to time, place, and result; a direct and immediate injury, rather than a consequential one. Id. As early as Gallagher v. Kemmerer, 144 Pa. 509, 22 A. 970 (1891), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court pointed out the necessity for concerted action by wrongdoers to establish joint liability even though it might be difficult to separate the damages caused by independent tortfeasors. In that case, the court held that a release of one of two successive tortfeasors did not insulate the other in contrast to the common law rule extinguishing all liability when there was a release of one joint tortfeasor.

For administrative convenience, or to ensure the proper allocation of damages, a number of plaintiff's claims for substantially the same injury against more than one independent tortfeasor may be consolidated for trial. This joinder of parties a procedural device unfortunately, is often confused with the substantive liability of two or more defendants for the same tort. But the two concepts must be distinguished to avoid misapplication of the underlying principles of joint tort liability.

Section 1 of the Uniform Act, 42 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 8322 (Purdon 1978), defines joint tortfeasors as

"two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to persons or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them."

Although this definition speaks of joint Or several liability, leaving open the possibility that notions of joinder in addition to substantive liability may be included, it does require liability "in tort for the same injury to persons or property."*fn5

Here, although it is true that plaintiff alleged injuries to the same part of the body in both suits, causal and temporal distinctions refute the argument there has been only one injury. There were two distinct incidents of alleged wrongdoing separated by a period of six years. No concerted action was asserted and there was no relationship between the defendants in the two claims which created a common duty. Using any test, it is clear that the defendants in the federal suit were not joint tortfeasors with those in the state action and the release did not preclude liability for the 1975 products liability claim.

The district court also relied upon another Pennsylvania doctrine, that of prohibiting double recovery for the same loss. In Thompson v. Fox, 326 Pa. 209, 192 A. 107 (1937), the court ruled that a plaintiff who had settled his bodily injury claim against a negligent motorist could not recover additional sums from a physician whose careless treatment aggravated the original injury. The court held that for the same injury, a plaintiff may have but one recovery, either in satisfaction of a judgment or as consideration for a release given to one of those liable to him, whether their liability be joint or successive.

The Thompson case, however, is of doubtful validity today. Although satisfaction of a judgment obtained in an adversary proceeding bars another recovery for the same injury, the receipt of consideration for a release no longer has the same preclusive effect. As we explained in Frank v. Volkswagenwerk, A. G., supra, a case may be settled and often is on the basis of factors other than value of the claim. Unavailability of witnesses, or the insurance coverage available to a defendant, for example, may be the decisive factors influencing a settlement. Blanchard v. Wilt, 410 Pa. 356, 188 A.2d 722 (1963), fairly analyzed, indicates that in the absence of an adversary judgment, Pennsylvania law requires a determination of whether the first proceeding resulted in an award representing the true value of the claim. We conclude that to the extent Blanchard is inconsistent with Thompson v. Fox, supra, it represents a change in Pennsylvania law. Blanchard emphasizes the distinction between release and satisfaction, and its reasoning is supported by authoritative commentary. See Prosser, Law of Torts § 49 (4th ed. 1971). Indeed, the same point was made in an earlier case, Hilbert v. Roth, 395 Pa. 270, 274-75, 149 A.2d 648, 651 (1959), and more recently, in Lasprogata v. Qualls, 263 Pa. Super. 174, 397 A.2d 803 (Pa.Super.Ct.1979), the Pennsylvania Superior Court used the same approach.*fn6

On the record presented to the district court for summary judgment, there was a failure to show that the consideration for the release represented the true value of plaintiff's claim even if it be assumed that only one indivisible injury was incurred. It seems clear to us, however, that there were in fact separate and distinct injuries despite the argument to the contrary exhibited in plaintiff's pretrial pleadings in the state case.

Accordingly, since the defendant here was not a joint tortfeasor and there is no showing that consideration received for the release included the true value of the federal court claim, summary judgment should not have been entered. Therefore, the judgment of the district court will be vacated. Both parties to bear their own costs.

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