General Motors Corp. v. Superior Court

Decision Date12 January 1993
Docket NumberNo. E011375,E011375
Citation12 Cal.App.4th 435,15 Cal.Rptr.2d 622
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesGENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Petitioner, v. SUPERIOR COURT of the State of California for the County of San Bernardino, Respondent. James TICICH, Real Party in Interest.
OPINION

DABNEY, Acting Presiding Justice.

Petitioner General Motors Corporation ("General Motors") sought summary judgment on the ground that the real party in interest, James Ticich ("Ticich") had relinquished his right to pursue this action against it when he executed a release of "any and all persons, firms, and corporations." We hold that this general release operates to release General Motors even though it was not specifically named or identified in the release, and that the trial court, therefore, erred in denying summary judgment. Accordingly, we will grant the petition and direct the superior court to grant General Motors' motion for summary judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This action arises out of an automobile accident that occurred in September 1987, between a vehicle driven by Charlotte Martinez and a 1984 Buick Century driven by Yvonne Ticich, the wife of real party Ticich. Yvonne Ticich died several days later as a result of injuries sustained in this collision.

Ticich retained the law firm of Robert D. Andrews to represent him and his children. Andrews' office contacted Buick Motors Corp. in December 1987, to advise it of a possible products liability claim against it as a result of the accident.

On January 5, 1988, in consideration of the amount of $25,000 Ticich executed a release and discharge of Charlotte Martinez and "any and all other persons, firms and corporations, whether herein named or referred to or not, of and from any and all past, present and future actions, causes of action, claims, demands, damages, costs, loss of services, expenses, compensation, third party actions, suits at law or in equity, including claims or suits for contribution and/or indemnity, of whatever nature, and all consequential damage on account of, or in any way growing out of any and all known and unknown personal injuries, death and/or property damages resulting or to result from an accident that occurred on or about the 29th day of Sept. 1987, at or near San Bernardino, California."

Both Ticich and Martinez were represented by attorneys at the time this release was negotiated, and Ticich's attorney, Deborah Mohr Walker, also signed the release as a witness. The $25,000 check was made payable to Robert D. Andrews and Ticich, for the estate of Yvonne Ticich.

In February 1988, Ticich retained a new attorney, Richard Bawden, and on June 14, 1988, acting individually and as guardian ad litem for Yvonne Ticich's children, Ticich filed an action for wrongful death and products liability naming as defendants Buick and General Motors among others.

General Motors moved for summary judgment and/or adjudication based on the release executed by Ticich, contending that the terms of the release clearly served to release it as well as any other person or corporation.

Ticich opposed the motion, contending that this provision of the release agreement as interpreted by General Motors is unconscionable and against public policy. He also argued that General Motors lacked standing to enforce the release agreement because it was not an intended beneficiary of the contract. The only evidence submitted by Ticich in opposition to the motion was the declaration of attorney Bawden who stated that he devotes the majority of his practice to personal injury litigation and that he had seen "many form release agreements of the type that was used by Charlotte Martinez/Nationwide in the settlement with James Ticich.... In [his] experience, these forms are routinely exchanged without any thought of their operation as third party beneficiary contracts. Rather, they are used to settle all claims of whatever type between the parties, including their business organizations, heirs, successors and assigns."

The trial court denied summary judgment relying on the "reasoning of the Illinois case of Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 101 Ill.2d 196, 77 Ill.Dec. 738, 461 N.E.2d 361 (1984) [which] requires a general form release to specifically identify every individual or entity which is to be released. In doing so, the court specifically refused to follow Winet v. Price, 4 Cal.App.4th 1159, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554 (1992); Edwards v. Comstock Ins. Co., 205 Cal.App.3d 1164, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807 (1988); Eustace v. Dechter, 53 Cal.App.2d 726, 128 P.2d 367 (1942); and the majority of out-of-state cases which have upheld the plain language of a general form release of 'all other persons, firms or corporations' to release all other persons or entities, such as General Motors, regardless of whether they are specifically named in the release or not."

DISCUSSION

Pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 877, subdivision (a), a release given to one tortfeasor shall not discharge any other party from liability unless its terms so provide. The release contract executed by Ticich provides for the release and discharge of Charlotte Martinez, the other signatory to the agreement, and "any and all persons, firms and corporations, whether herein named or referred to or not." We conclude that the trial court erred in denying General Motors' motion for summary judgment because Ticich did not present evidence raising a triable issue of fact that the language of this release did not encompass all persons or entities, including General Motors, or that its application in this case to bar this action is unconscionable or against public policy.

We begin our analysis with the axiom that the interpretation of a release or settlement agreement is governed by the same principles applicable to any other contractual agreement. (Winet v. Price, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th 1159, 1165, 6 Cal.Rptr.2d 554; Edwards v. Comstock Insurance Co., supra, 205 Cal.App.3d 1164, 1167-1169, 252 Cal.Rptr. 807.) We, thus, reject the trial court's conclusion that Code of Civil Procedure section 877, subdivision (a) requires a release agreement to specifically identify the tortfeasors to be released. In reaching this conclusion, it relied on the majority decision in the Illinois case of Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., supra, 77 Ill.Dec. 738, 461 N.E.2d 361. However, we find that the rationale presented by the majority opinion in Alsup to be unsatisfactory for the following reasons.

Under the common law, the discharge of one joint tortfeasor automatically released all other tortfeasors. This rule was criticized as being harsh and without any rational basis (Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., supra, 77 Ill.Dec. at 740-741, 461 N.E.2d at 363-364), and dissatisfaction with this rule led to the adoption in various states of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act which provides that a release "does not discharge any other tortfeasors from liability for the injury or wrongful death unless its terms so provide." (12 West's U.Law Ann. (Master ed. 1975) Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act § 4; see Wells v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, Inc. (1988) 72 N.Y.2d 11, 530 N.Y.S.2d 517, 521, 526 N.E.2d 8, 12.) Code of Civil Procedure section 877, subsection (a), contains substantially similar language as does the Illinois statute which was at issue in Alsup. The majority opinion in Alsup observed that the intent of the legislature in adopting this statute was to abolish the common law rule, and concluded that "the modifying language that follows, i.e., 'unless its terms so provide,' should [not] be interpreted to allow the legislative intendment of nullifying the common law rule to be frustrated through the use of what are often general release forms. The legislature surely was aware of the criticism that the common law rule often operated to violate the intentions of persons giving releases. We consider that the legislature's intendment was that under [this statute] a release was not to discharge 'other tortfeasors' from liability unless they were designated by name or otherwise specifically identified." (Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., supra, 77 Ill.Dec. at 741, 461 N.E.2d at 364.)

However, the dissenting justice in Alsup pointed out that there was "[n]othing in the statute [which] requires that the others released be identified by name or otherwise specifically identified." (Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., supra, 77 Ill.Dec. at 742, 461 N.E.2d at 365 [dissenting opn. of Ryan, C.J.].) Similarly, Code of Civil Procedure section 877, subdivision (a), contains no requirement of specific identification. Our Legislature could have easily so provided. (Cf. Wells v. Shearson Lehman, etc., supra, 530 N.Y.S.2d at 521, 526 N.E.2d at 12.) We are not persuaded that interpreting the language of such a release according to the usual rules of contract interpretation would undermine the legislative intent in enacting this statute and result in the "unintended release of persons who were strangers to the release contract." And we see no reason not to apply these general rules of contract construction in the present case simply because the release is on a preprinted form where the language is otherwise clear and unambiguous: no competent evidence was introduced to raise a triable issue of fact as to ambiguity or to suggest that this term was not freely negotiated.

Turning to the specific release at issue, we note that its language appears clearly and unambiguously to release every person or entity from liability to Ticich arising from the described automobile accident. One of the basic principles of contract interpretation...

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