Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Judge Van Jura of Luzerne County Addresses Effect of Release Between Original Parties on Claims of Contribution Between Defendants

In a March 23, 2011 Opinion, Judge Joseph Van Jura of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas addressed the issue of the effect of a Release entered into by a Plaintiff and an original Defendant upon claims for contribution by the original Defendant against an Additional Defendant in the case of Hartzell v. Saxe, No. 5503 of 2002 (Luz. Co. March 23, 2011, Van Jura, J.).

The Hartzell case arose out of a motor vehicle accident. The Plaintiffs sued original Defendants, Saxe and Medico. The original Defendants joined in certain additional defendants including Additional Defendant, Redmond.

The trial court emphasized that both the original Complaint and the Praecipe for Writ to Join Additional Defendants were filed within the applicable two year statute of limitations.

In their Joinder Complaint, the original Defendants included a prayer of relief demanding judgment against the Additional Defendant, Redmond “solely and/or for contribution and/or for indemnity on the causes of action alleged by the Plaintiffs….”

Judge Van Jura reviewed the Uniform Contribution Among Tort-Feasors Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §8324(c), which provides that “a joint tort-feasor who enters into a settlement with the injured persons is not entitled to recover contribution from another joint tort-feasor whose liability to the injured person is not extinguished by the settlement."

In this matter, the Additional Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment alleging that the original Defendants were unable to establish the necessary elements for a claim of contribution against the Additional Defendant given the Release entered into by the Plaintiff and the original Defendant.

The Court noted that, when the original Defendants entered into a settlement with the Plaintiffs by way of a Release, the terms of that Release provided that the Plaintiffs were releasing the original Defendants for any and all claims in full settlement.  The Release also contained language confirming that the Release did not extend to the Additional Defendants, including Additional Defendant Redmond.

As such, the Additional Defendant Redmond argued that the Release in question did not extinguish his liability to the Plaintiff as required under 42 Pa. C.S. §8234(c) and that, therefore, the original Defendants were precluded from pursuing a claim of contribution against the Additional Defendant.

Although the original Defendants produced evidence showing that the Plaintiff did not have any intention of moving forward upon its case any further and had filed a Praecipe for Discontinuance of the Plaintiffs’ claims only, Judge Van Jura nevertheless held that the Additional Defendant Redmond was entitled to summary judgment on the original Defendant’s contribution claim, because the Release in question in this matter could not be construed to extinguish the potential liability of the Additional Defendant to the Plaintiff.

This issue kind of hurts your head when you try to think it through.  Anyone desiring a copy of this Opinion may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

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