Bjork v. Chrysler Corp.

Citation702 P.2d 146
Decision Date27 June 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-131,84-131
PartiesStacey Lynn BJORK, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. CHRYSLER CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation; the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; Ray Jenson; Howard Vanvalkenberg; Byron Sunberg; and Michael B. Hickman, Appellees (Defendants).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Terry W. Mackey and Robert W. Tiedeken of Terry W. Mackey, P.C., Cheyenne, for appellant.

Michael Golden and Patrick J. Murphy of Williams, Porter, Day & Neville, P.C., Casper, for appellee Chrysler Corp.

Timothy G. Williams of Guy, Williams, White & Argeris, Cheyenne, for appellee The Corp. of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

George E. Powers of Godfrey & Sundahl, Cheyenne, for appellee Ray Jenson.

Rebecca A. Lewis of Hirst & Applegate, Cheyenne, for appellees Howard Vanvalkenberg and Michael B. Hickman.

Robert M. Shively of Murane & Bostwick, Casper, for appellee Byron Sunberg.

Thomas E. Campbell of Hanes, Gage & Burke, P.C., Cheyenne, filed a brief for the Amicus Curiae Committee of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Ass'n.

Before THOMAS *, C.J., and ROSE, ROONEY **, BROWN and CARDINE, JJ.

ROSE, Justice.


While yet in her minority years, appellant Stacey Lynn Bjork was rendered an "incomplete quadriplegic" 1 in a highway accident which happened on April 22, 1979 near Wamsutter, Wyoming. Stacey was riding in an automobile driven by David Oberholtzer on the return of a round trip from Rawlins, Wyoming, to Salt Lake City, Utah, which was sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints of Rawlins, First Ward and Second Ward. On November 9, 1983, Ms. Bjork brought suit and the appellees-defendants who remain in this appeal are Chrysler Corporation; The Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; Ray Jenson; Howard Vanvalkenberg; Byron Sunberg; and Michael B. Hickman.

Stacey Bjork's father was appointed her guardian, and, through him, she settled for policy limits with his insurance company which policy not only furnished coverage to Mr. Bjork, but also covered the Chrysler car and its driver. In these settlement negotiations, appellant's guardian executed a form release furnished by the insurance company which Stacey ratified a few years later when she attained her majority. The handwritten section of the document specifically released David Oberholtzer and his and his father, Paul. By its printed words, the instrument also purported to discharge

" * * * all other persons, firms or corporations liable or who might be claimed to be liable * * * from any and all claims, demands, damages, actions, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever * * *."

The parties do not question the validity of the release to the Oberholtzers. 2

At the conclusion of the summary-judgment proceedings--which were predicated upon the pleadings, the release in question and affidavits of the guardian and his attorneys stating that they did not intend that the release should discharge any persons but those specifically named therein--the trial court found that the above-quoted "all other persons" catch-all language of the release document had the effect of discharging all unidentified tortfeasors and alleged tortfeasors including the appellees. In coming to its conclusion, the court found that the release satisfied the requirements of § 1-1-113(a)(i), W.S.1977, of Wyoming's version of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act. 3 Section 1-1-113 provides:

"Release or covenant not to sue.

"(a) When a release or a covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith to one (1) of two (2) or more persons liable in tort for the same injury or the same wrongful death:

"(i) It does not discharge any of the other tortfeasors from liability for the injury or wrongful death unless its terms so provide; but it reduces the claim against the others to the extent of any amount stipulated by the release or the covenant, or in the amount of the consideration paid for it, whichever is the greater; and

"(ii) It discharges the tortfeasor to whom it is given from all liability for contribution to any other tortfeasor." (Emphasis added.)

The trial court held, therefore, that the language of the printed form releasing

" * * * all other persons, firms or corporations liable or who might be claimed to be liable, * * * "

were the "terms" of the instrument which satisfied the emphasized proviso language contained in § 1-1-113(a)(i), supra.

We will reverse the trial court.


The appellant identifies the issue for our decision as follows:

Did the trial court err "in granting summary judgment to the appellees on the grounds that they had been released by appellant's guardian on September 27, 1980"?

We would say that the issue is even more precisely this:

When the release instrument and Wyoming's Right to Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors statutes, §§ 1-1-110 through 1-1-113, W.S.1977, are read together, can it even then be said that it was the intention of the contracting parties and the legislature that a general release would also discharge unidentified tortfeasors who were not parties to the contract and who had offered no consideration to the plaintiff in return for the release, and whose adverse damage judgments--if any--would be reduced in the amount that settling tortfeasors paid or agreed to pay in return for their releases?


We agree with the trial judge's conclusion that a decision in this case requires that the Right to Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors statutes and the release document must be considered together as constituting the entire agreement of the parties because, under § 1-1-113, the release of one tortfeasor no longer releases the remaining tortfeasors by operation of law as was the case at common law. 4 Since the "terms" of the instrument--according to the directive of § 1-1-113(a)(i)--will decide whether tortfeasors who are not parties to the release contract will enjoy discharge, it therefore becomes necessary to read all of Wyoming's Right to Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors statutes together with the release in order to ascertain whether the instrument contains such "terms" as will have the effect of excusing tortfeasors and/or claimed tortfeasors who are not specifically identified--who are not parties to the release agreement--and who have paid no consideration for their release.

When § 1-1-113 and the release are considered as one, their provisions formulate an instrument which contains:

(1) a handwritten discharge in favor of the Oberholtzers which does not profess to be in full satisfaction of all of Ms. Bjork's damages; 5

(2) a purported printed release of unidentified persons who had not been sued and who had paid no consideration for the release;

(3) a statutory directive that a release or covenant not to sue will not discharge any tortfeasor--"unless its terms so provide";

(4) a statutory provision which holds that the plaintiff's claim against tortfeasors who do not settle will be reduced by the amount stipulated or paid by the settling tortfeasor; and

(5) a statutory provision which provides that a settling tortfeasor is relieved of contribution obligations.

The Common-Law Release Rule

Prior to the adoption of Wyoming's version of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, and absent the "all other persons" release language, the instrument in issue here would have been interpreted to be a common-law release, the effect of which would have been to discharge not only the Oberholtzers but all other joint tortfeasors.

We said in Natrona Power Co. v. Clark, 31 Wyo. 284, 225 P. 586, 587 (1924):

" * * * A release of one joint tortfeasor operates as a discharge of both, but a covenant not to sue one will not discharge the other."

Accord Day v. Smith, 46 Wyo. 515, 30 P.2d 786 (1934).

A release of one was said to discharge all joint tortfeasors for the reason that, even though the parties may not have so intended, the instrument had the effect of extinguishing the cause of action, and there could therefore be but one satisfaction of the obligation. Natrona Power Company v. Clark, supra. 6 This rule was held to operate in favor of unreleased tortfeasors even where the instrument contained an express reservation of the right to sue. We said in Natrona Power Co. v. Clark, 225 P. at 588:

" * * * The effect of such a reservation in an instrument which would otherwise be a release has frequently been the subject of judicial inquiry, and there are many cases in this country holding that the reservation can be given no effect at all, and that the instrument operates as a release of all persons jointly liable. [Citations.] The idea underlying these cases is that the primary purpose to release is the thing to be carried out, and that the reservation of the right to sue others, being inconsistent with the purpose to release, must be disregarded. Walsh v. New York, C. & H.R. Co., 204 N.Y. 58, 97 N.E. 408, 37 L.R.A. (N.S.) 1137. In other words, the injured person cannot release one wrongdoer and at the same time reserve the right to pursue another for the same wrong."

In a more recent case involving the effect of a release by the original tortfeasor upon a successive wrongdoer, the Ohio Supreme Court said in Whitt v. Hutchison, 43 Ohio St.2d 53, 330 N.E.2d 678 (1975):

"In some cases, it was even held that a release of one jointly liable acted as a release of all, even though the release contained an express provision to the contrary. Ellis v. Bitzer (1925), 2 Ohio 89. See, e.g., Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Boone (Fla.1956), 85 So.2d 834; Getzendaner v. United Pacific Ins. Co. (1958), 52 Wash.2d 61, 322 P.2d 1089." 7

The Injustice of The Common Law

These common-law doctrines have been roundly criticized as being "harsh" and "very unfair," Calamari and Perillo, The Law of Contracts § 20-3 (2d Ed.1977). In Whitt v. Hutchison, 330...

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