Kirkpatrick v. Chrysler Corp.

Decision Date18 June 1996
Docket NumberNo. 81604,81604
Citation920 P.2d 122,1996 OK 136
PartiesJeff KIRKPATRICK, Appellant, v. The CHRYSLER CORPORATION, a foreign corporation, Appellee.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Michael D. Parks, Parks & Wiley, McAlester, for Appellant.

Stephen Peterson and Michael S. McMillin, Fenton, Fenton, Smith, Reneau & Moon, Oklahoma City, for Appellee.

LAVENDER, Justice.

We decide in this case whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to appellee, Chrysler Corporation (Chrysler) in a personal injury lawsuit brought by appellant, Jeff Kirkpatrick (Kirkpatrick). Summary judgment was granted on the basis a release and satisfaction of judgment filed in a prior case, brought when Kirkpatrick was a minor by his mother as next friend against the driver of the truck in which he was riding when injured, barred any lawsuit against Chrysler. We hold the grant of summary judgment was error.

PART I: STANDARD OF REVIEW.

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.

PART II: FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

After turning eighteen (18) years old, Kirkpatrick sued Chrysler to recover for injuries he suffered years earlier when he fell out of a truck being driven by Ricky Tanner. The basic allegations against Chrysler are that because of defective design and/or manufacture the passenger door of the truck flew open while Tanner turned a corner and Kirkpatrick fell to the ground. Chrysler moved for summary judgment arguing a release and satisfaction of judgment, filed in a prior case brought against Tanner by Kirkpatrick's mother as his next friend when he was a minor for the same injuries, barred suit against it. Three documents were attached to the summary judgment motion, all of which had been filed in the prior case: the petition, a journal entry of judgment and a release and satisfaction of judgment executed by the mother and the attorney representing mother and Kirkpatrick in the matter. Chrysler relied on the rule that a plaintiff is entitled to only one satisfaction for a single cause of action and is prohibited from splitting the cause of action by attempting to apportion damages among joint or concurrent tortfeasors--that although such tortfeasors may be proceeded against either jointly or separately and separate judgments may be taken against them, once a judgment has been fully satisfied by one of the tortfeasors, the cause of action is extinguished and proceedings against others are barred. We refer to this rule of law as the one satisfaction rule.

It is important to highlight early what Chrysler does not argue or assert here. Chrysler does not argue: 1) that the amount of money received by Kirkpatrick as specified in the release and satisfaction of judgment (as stated below--$10,000.00) is truly full compensation for his injuries or that this record conclusively shows the amount was intended by the parties to the prior case to represent full compensation; 2) that actual adjudication on the merits of the issue of the amount of damages, by judge or jury, occurred in the previous case; or 3) that any document submitted by it conclusively shows the parties to the prior case, or the judge handling it, intended to discharge Chrysler from liability or bar subsequent proceedings against it. In essence, Chrysler takes the position it does not matter what the parties or the judge intended, whether full compensation has been received or, whether the issue of damages was actually litigated in the earlier case.

Kirkpatrick responded to the motion arguing the prior case was a friendly suit--the petition, journal entry of judgment and release and satisfaction of judgment all being filed on the same day--and that the judgment in the case was intended only as an order approving a settlement agreement where Tanner, by his liability insurance carrier, Atlas Mutual Insurance Company, would agree to settle and compromise the matter for the liability limits of the Atlas policy, a sum of $10,000.00. A review of the judgment appears to reveal the matter did proceed along the lines of a friendly suit--the journal entry of judgment so recites in its first paragraph--and that the judgment was, indeed, only meant to approve the settlement, and apportion $4,000.00 for attorney fees to the attorney for Kirkpatrick and his mother, and the remaining $6,000.00 for payment of medical bills incurred in treating Kirkpatrick. 1 Clearly, nothing in the journal entry of judgment, or in any other document in the reviewable record, reflects actual adjudication on the merits of the issue of the amount of damages by judge or jury, and nothing in the record conclusively shows the sum of $10,000.00 was intended by the parties to the case, or the judge, to represent full compensation for Kirkpatrick's injuries. 2

In addition to arguing the judgment was merely a court approval of a settlement, Kirkpatrick asserted the release and satisfaction of judgment was intended to discharge only Tanner and Atlas. Along with this argument, Kirkpatrick claimed the release and satisfaction of judgment should be treated like a release, covenant not to sue or similar agreement under 12 O.S.1991, § 832(H), a part of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act (UCATA), and applying § 832(H) to it would not have the effect of discharging Chrysler.

The release and satisfaction of judgment provides as follows:

Now on this 11 day of February, 1987, Jeffrey Kirkpatrick, by and through his mother and next friend, Sue Pursley, and their attorney Michael Parks, acknowledge receipt of payment in the amount of $10,000.00 from Ricky Tanner, and his liability insurance carrier, Atlas Mutual Insurance Company, in full and complete satisfaction of all claims, causes of action, and rights, previously asserted herein, for injuries received by Jeffrey Kirkpatrick, both past and future, and for all of his damages of any type, arising out of the motor vehicle accident of June 25, 1985, on North Hickory Street in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma inside the city limits of McAlester, Oklahoma. Further, said Plaintiffs acknowledge receipt of said amount in full and complete satisfaction of that judgment previously rendered herein on the 11 day of February, 1987, and hereby release the Defendant, Ricky Tanner, and Atlas Mutual Insurance Company, from any further claims or responsibilities on said judgment.

The trial court after briefing and oral argument agreed with Chrysler. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding merit in the argument the journal entry of judgment was nothing more than a court approval of settlement on behalf of a minor and that only the driver was discharged from further liability. We previously granted certiorari. 3

PART III: ANALYSIS.

Although as noted in PART II, the judgment in the prior case does appear merely to be a court approval of a settlement between the parties to that case and the driver's insurance carrier, we have no doubt part of the intent of the judgment was to act as an enforceable award in favor of Kirkpatrick's mother as his next friend and against Tanner, albeit an award that reflected only a compromised sum in the amount of liability insurance coverage--i.e. the amount of damages was not actually adjudicated on the merits. We, therefore, assume a judgment of $10,000.00 was made in the earlier case, but that such judgment was an agreed or consent judgment based on a settlement. We also must assume on the basis of this record that the $10,000.00 was not intended to reflect full compensation and did not, in fact, represent full compensation for Kirkpatrick's injuries. No conclusive evidence shows otherwise. Further, our review of the record reveals no conclusive evidence Chrysler was intended to be discharged by virtue of the Tanner settlement and no evidence at all exists it was named or otherwise specifically identified in any pertinent document as a joint or concurrent tortfeasor to be discharged. With these understandings we begin our analysis.

Generally, tortfeasors are thought of as joint tortfeasors when there is some concerted action on their part causing injury--when there is some common purpose or design. Hammond v. Kansas, O. & G. Ry. Co., 109 Okla. 72, 234 P. 731, 732 (1925). In such a situation, i.e. where the tortfeasors act in concert, in pursuit of a common design, they have each historically been held liable for the entire result or damage done. W. PROSSER, HANDBOOK OF THE LAW OF TORTS, Ch. 8, § 46, at 291 (4th ed. 1971). Tortfeasors are classified as concurrent tortfeasors when their independent acts concur to produce a single or indivisible injury. Brigance v. Velvet Dove Restaurant, 756 P.2d 1232, 1233 (Okla.1988). In other words, in the case of joint tortfeasors some type of concert of action (or omission) is required, while in the case of concurrent tortfeasors such concert is lacking, but a single or indivisible injury or harm is nonetheless produced. Notwithstanding the lack of concerted action and even though the act of one may not have alone caused the injury or brought about the result, it has long been recognized in Oklahoma that...

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