Correia v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

Decision Date09 March 1983
Citation388 Mass. 342,446 N.E.2d 1033
PartiesMildred R. CORREIA, administratrix, v. The FIRESTONE TIRE & RUBBER COMPANY.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Robert V. Costello, Boston, for plaintiff.

Reginald H. Howe, Boston (Turner C. Graybill, Boston, with him), for defendant.

Before HENNESSEY, C.J., and LIACOS, NOLAN and O'CONNOR, JJ.

NOLAN, Justice.

This case comes before the court on certification from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The court has certified to us five questions involving Massachusetts tort and warranty law. See S.J.C. Rule 1:03, § 1, as amended, --- Mass. --- (1981).

This is an action for wrongful death under G.L. c. 229, § 2, commenced in the United States District Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (1976). Mildred R. Correia, as administratrix of the estate of her husband, Alfred R. Correia, brought suit against the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company (Firestone). Alfred Correia was killed on November 10, 1978, in an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment as a truck driver for Concord Steel Corporation (Concord Steel). 1 Mrs. Correia filed a complaint in September, 1979. 2 Since Mrs. Correia applied for and received death benefits under G.L. c. 152, the Workmen's Compensation Act, any recovery is subject to the provisions of § 15.

Discovery has been completed and the case is ready for trial. Firestone requested certain jury instructions on negligence and warranty that presented issues of law for which the trial judge found no controlling precedent in the decisions of this court. He believed that an authoritative answer "would materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation consistently with Massachusetts law." In certifying these questions to this court, he summarized the parties' allegations as follows: "The plaintiff alleges the following facts as to which there is no dispute: At the time of the accident, Mr. Correia was driving a tractor-trailer rig owned by Concord Steel from its plant in Everett to its plant in Methuen. The trailer was loaded with several large, one-inch thick, steel plates for ultimate delivery to Concord Steel's customers. While the truck was proceeding north on Route 93 in Andover, the right front tire of the tractor blew out. The rig, which was in the center lane at the time of the blowout, veered to the right, went across the right travel lane, then through the right guardrail and down an embankment. In the course of the accident, Mr. Correia was killed. His body was found on the ground approximately ten feet from the tractor.

"The plaintiff further alleges that the tire which blew out was a Firestone tire, and that the blowout was caused by negligence or breach of warranty by Firestone.

"Firestone denies any negligence or breach of warranty and alleges contributory negligence by Mr. Correia, particularly with respect to his failure to control the rig after the blowout, his failure to properly inspect and maintain the rig and its tires, and his failure to wear a seatbelt.

"Additionally, Firestone alleges that the accident was caused in whole or in part by negligence of Concord Steel other than negligence of Mr. Correia....

"To summarize, Firestone contends that in addition to any negligence of Mr. Correia, Concord Steel was negligent in at least three major respects: (1) it failed to properly service and maintain the tractor's steering system; (2) it failed to properly install or maintain the pin and plate which held the trailer to the tractor's so-called 'fifth wheel;' and (3) it failed to properly secure the load of steel plates to the trailer.... 3

"The parties agree that the applicable state law is that of massachusetts.

"Firestone, recognizing that it cannot seek contribution from Concord Steel (Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Westerlind, 374 Mass. 524, 373 N.E.2d 957 (1978)), has by a motion in limine requested this Court to give one of four alternative jury instructions on the negligence count. Essentially, Firestone requests this court to determine what effect, if any, should be given under the negligence count to any negligence of Concord Steel (other than negligence of Mr. Correia) ....

"Firestone has also requested this court to determine what effect, if any, should be given under the breach of warranty count to any negligence of Mr. Correia, or to any negligence of Concord Steel (other than negligence of Mr. Correia). In this regard, Firestone contends that this court should apply the comparative negligence statute to the breach of warranty count in the same manner that it applies that statute to the negligence count, i.e., that it should treat M.G.L. c. 231, § 85, as a comparative 'fault' statute, or, alternatively, that this court should apply common law contributory negligence principles to the breach of warranty count.

"Plaintiff contends that (1) the jury should be instructed that alleged negligence attributable to Concord Steel (other than alleged negligence of Mr. Correia) is irrelevant to the liability of Firestone and (2) that all proffered evidence (and opening statements regarding evidence) that is relevant only to such alleged negligence of Concord Steel and not to other issues in the case should be excluded."

The judge, pursuant to S.J.C. Rule 1:03, certified the following questions to this court.

QUESTION ONE

"If Concord Steel's negligence (other than negligence of Mr. Correia) was a proximate cause of Mr. Correia's death, should that negligence be given effect in the negligence count in this action in the manner described in any of Firestone's four alternative jury instructions?" We answer, "No."

In Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Westerlind, 374 Mass. 524, 373 N.E.2d 957 (1978), we held that a third-party tortfeasor has no right of contribution (or indemnity, absent an express or implied contract) from an insured or self-insured employer whose negligence contributed to the employee's injury, where the employee had collected workmen's compensation benefits. Our holding was premised on the fact that, under G.L. c. 152, § 23, an employee who accepts compensation benefits from an employer releases that employer from all claims of liability that the employee might have as a result of his accident. Since the employer could not be liable to the employee, the employer could not be liable for contribution under G.L. c. 231B, § 1(a ), which requires that "the potential contributor be directly liable to the plaintiff." Id. at 526, 373 N.E.2d 957. The great majority of courts that have considered this question have denied contribution. 2A A. Larson, Workmen's Compensation § 76.20 (1982). We also recognized in Westerlind that strong "policy arguments exist on both sides of the issue" and that "[s]uch conflicting policy considerations are best resolved in the Legislature where the resolution can be based on full consideration of the competing interests and the ramifications involved with any change of the legislative scheme of G.L. c. 152." Id. at 527, 373 N.E.2d 957.

The jury instructions requested by Firestone 4 implicate the same statutory framework and policy considerations. In essence, Firestone's proffered jury instructions seek an "equitable" solution to the supposed inequity of the Westerlind rule 5 as perceived in light of the comparative negligence 6 and contribution statutes. 7 Similar solutions have been proposed without success in a number of other States where the workmen's compensation statutes have been construed to bar contribution against the employer. See 2A A. Larson, Workmen's Compensation § 76.20, at 14-571, 14-594--14-595 & n. 27 (1982). A common ground for the decisions denying equitable solutions, aside from difficulties with the solutions themselves, has been that the workmen's compensation laws are economic regulations representing the Legislature's balance of competing societal interests and that the courts have no place in reshaping public policy in the face of such comprehensive legislation. See State v. Wien Air Alaska, Inc., 619 P.2d 719 (Alaska 1980); Arctic Structures, Inc. v. Wedmore, 605 P.2d 426 (Alaska 1979); Mulder v. Acme-Cleveland Corp., 95 Wis.2d 173, 290 N.W.2d 276 (1980). We accepted this rationale in Westerlind, supra 374 Mass. at 527, 373 N.E.2d 957. Although that decision, strictly speaking, rested on a legal question, we think its rationale extends to preclude our making any decision here in the name of equity which would undercut the legislative scheme to which we there deferred. Workmen's compensation is not an area so "long left to the common law [that] change may ... come about by the same medium of development." Ferriter v. Daniel O'Connell's Sons, 381 Mass. 507, --- Mass.Adv.Sh. (1980) 2075, 2084, 413 N.E.2d 690. The first workmen's compensation law in this Commonwealth was enacted in 1911. St.1911, c. 751, II, §§ 1-22. "It was not a mere amendment or modification of the common law, but the establishment of previously unknown obligations, compensations, and procedures, all differing from and in place of those afforded by the common law" (footnote omitted). L. Locke, Workmen's Compensation § 1 (2d ed. 1981). The competing interests have been rebalanced and the law amended numerous times since 1911. Any inequities in the present scheme must be resolved by the Legislature. See Ferrari v. Toto, 383 Mass. 36, --- - ---, Mass.Adv.Sh. (1981) 565, 567-568, 417 N.E.2d 427.

This conclusion is not altered by the existence of the comparative negligence statute, G.L. c. 231, § 85, and the contribution statute, G.L. c. 231B, § 1. These statutes did not create the liability of the third party, which is of common law origin, and there is no indication that they were intended to destroy it. Taken together, these statutes make clear "that the negligence of a plaintiff is to be compared with the total negligence of all the defendants, all of whom are liable to the...

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