Hoyt v. Paul R. Miller, M.D., Inc.

Decision Date16 July 1996
Docket NumberNo. 80864,80864
Citation1996 OK 80,921 P.2d 350
PartiesFrederick J. HOYT, as Administrator of the Estate of Heather Elizabeth Ryan, Deceased, Appellant, v. PAUL R. MILLER, M.D., INC., Paul R. Miller, M.D.; R.C. Dimski, M.D.; Mid-Del Family Physicians; Concepts of Care, Inc.; and Concepts of Care III, Inc., Appellees.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Ralston, Buck & Associates, Oklahoma City, and Rex K. Travis, Margaret E. Travis, Oklahoma City, for Appellant.

John M. Perry III, Gary A. Rife, Hilton H. Walters, Perry & Rife, Oklahoma City, for Appellees Paul R. Miller, M.D., Inc.; Paul R. Miller, M.D.; and R.C. Dimski, M.D.

Robert T. Goolsby, Oklahoma City, for Appellees Concepts of Care, Inc. and Concepts of Care III, Inc.

LAVENDER, Justice.

We decide if the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to appellees, Paul R. Miller, M.D., Inc., Dr. Paul R. Miller, Dr. R.C. Dimski, Concepts of Care, Inc. and Concepts of Care III, Inc. in a wrongful death suit brought by appellant, Frederick J. Hoyt, administrator of the estate of Heather Elizabeth Ryan (decedent or Ryan). 1 Summary judgment was granted on the basis two releases and satisfactions of judgment filed in a prior case brought by appellant against the driver of the automobile in which decedent was riding when initially injured in an accident and an insurance company, barred any lawsuit against appellees. We hold the grant of summary judgment was error.

PART I: STANDARD OF REVIEW.

The appellate standard of review concerning a grant of summary judgment was stated in Carmichael v. Beller, 914 P.2d 1051 (Okla.1996), as follows:

Although a trial court in making a decision on whether summary judgment is appropriate considers factual matters, the ultimate decision turns on purely legal determinations, i.e. whether one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there are no material disputed factual questions. Therefore, as the decision involves purely legal determinations, the appellate standard of review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment is de novo. Bacchus Industries, Inc. v. Arvin Industries, Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir.1991). We, like the trial court, will examine the pleadings and evidentiary materials submitted by the parties to determine if there is a genuine issue of material fact. Ross v. City of Shawnee, 683 P.2d 535, 536 (Okla.1984). Further, all inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the evidentiary materials must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id.

Id. at 1053; See also Shadden v. Valley View Hospital, 915 P.2d 364, 366 (Okla.1996)(same).

PART II: FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

Decedent was initially injured in an automobile accident while a passenger in a vehicle driven by Michelle Diann Williams. Ryan was apparently treated by appellees. She died about a month after the accident. 2

Prior to filing this lawsuit against appellees, appellant sued Williams for the injuries and death of decedent. Ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) and costs were requested against Williams. In the same suit State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company was sued as the uninsured/underinsured insurance carrier under a policy issued to one Bobbi J. Ryan, said policy alleged in the petition in the prior case to provide coverage in the amount of $10,000.00 for decedent's death. 3 On the same day the previous lawsuit was filed separate releases and satisfactions of judgment in favor of Williams and State Farm were also filed. 4 They were signed by appellant and his attorney. We have not been provided copies of any judgment(s) in the prior case, but the releases and satisfactions of judgment show appellant acknowledged receipt of $10,000.00 from each defendant in full payment and satisfaction of judgment rendered. We also note the release and satisfaction of judgment running in favor of Williams expressly recites it reserves the right to sue for medical malpractice.

Subsequent to the conclusion of the prior case against Williams and State Farm, appellant sued appellees for wrongful death based on medical negligence. The petition requested damages under Oklahoma's wrongful death statute, 12 O.S.1991, § 1053. Appellees filed motions to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment, arguing the two releases and satisfactions of judgment barred the suit against them and/or discharged them from liability. 5 The motion to dismiss was filed pursuant to 12 O.S.1991, § 2012(B)(1) based on the view the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter. Submitted to the trial court in support of the alternative motion were the petition in the earlier case against Williams and State Farm and the two releases and satisfactions of judgment. No judgment from the earlier case was submitted and, as noted before, no judgment from the prior case appears in this record. Although the motion was couched in the alternative, i.e. for dismissal or summary judgment, both requests were grounded on the discharge or bar effect of the two releases and satisfactions of judgment. 6

Appellant responded to the motions essentially by conceding current Oklahoma law supported appellees' position, but that said law should be overruled, and that upon an adverse decision by the trial court based on the current state of the law, he would appeal the matter to this Court in an attempt to reverse this prior law. The response also essentially indicated the judgment in the Williams/State Farm case was entered based on a settlement and that said earlier case was a so-called friendly suit.

Finding no material, disputed issues of fact, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellees based on the view the filing of the releases and satisfactions of judgment in the earlier case against Williams and State Farm barred the wrongful death action against them as a matter of law. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed. Appellant sought certiorari which we have previously granted.

PART III. ANALYSIS.

Before beginning our legal analysis, attention must be drawn to certain matters. First, as stated in Part I, we must, like the trial court, take all inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the evidentiary material in the light most favorable to appellant. Doing so, it is our view, the record presented by appellees to support their trial court motions is inconclusive as to whether the prior case against Williams and State Farm truly involved actual adjudication on the merits by judge or jury of the issue of the amount of damages recoverable for the death of Ryan. 7 As we noted in Part II, we have not been provided with a copy of any judgment(s) in the earlier case, but only the petition and the two releases and satisfactions of judgment--documents the parties do not dispute appear to show were all filed on the same day. We also note one of the releases and satisfactions (the one running in favor of Williams) expressly recites the right to sue for malpractice is reserved and the other (the one running in favor of State Farm), when read in conjunction with the petition in the earlier case, appears to reflect the $10,000.00 acknowledged to have been paid by State Farm was in the exact limit of an uninsured/underinsured automobile insurance policy covering Ryan. In our opinion, without some additional documentation from the earlier case, or other appropriate evidentiary materials, the record here is insufficient to show actual adjudication of the damage issue. In fact, the materials, at a minimum, seem to point to a conclusion, or at least support an inference, appellant correctly stated the situation in his response to the dismissal/summary judgment motions, to the effect the prior case proceeded as a friendly suit based on a settlement.

Further, no conclusive evidence in this record shows the parties to the previous case intended for the amounts reflected in the two releases and satisfactions of judgment to act as full compensation for Ryan's death. Although the language in the releases is fairly broad as to acknowledging full payment and satisfaction for any claim raised in the prior suit brought against Williams and State Farm to recompense for Ryan's death, the statement in the Williams' release and satisfaction concerning reservation of the right to sue for malpractice, coupled with the assumption all pertinent documents were filed on the same day--and, thus, should all be construed together--precludes any conclusive determination the parties to the earlier case intended the $20,000.00 to reflect, or act as, full compensation for the death. At least, an ambiguity is created by the reservation language in the Williams' release and satisfaction as to the parties' intent in such regard. With these matters noted we move to our legal analysis.

The doctrine relied on by appellees to support a discharge or a bar to suit against them is the one satisfaction rule that we recently revisited in the case of Kirkpatrick v. Chrysler Corp., 920 P.2d 122 (Okla.1996). Stated generally this rule is: "[w]here liability is joint and several, the injured party may institute several suits against the multiple tortfeasors, but satisfaction of a judgment against one of the tortfeasors bars a judgment against the other tortfeasors." Brigance v. Velvet Dove Restaurant, 756 P.2d 1232, 1234 (Okla.1988). The rationale behind the rule is that:

[W]hen a plaintiff suffers a single-indivisible injury at the hands of two or more tortfeasors, each being liable for the whole injury--only one cause of action exists and once judgment is entered and satisfaction of that judgment is made by payment of it in full, the cause of action is extinguished and to allow a plaintiff to proceed further against other potentially liable tortfeasors would sanction an impermissible splitting of the cause of action. Sykes v. Wright, [201 Okla. 346, 205 P.2d 1156, 1159 (1949) ]. It has also been understood that the one satisfaction rule is equitable in nature and its...

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