Knight v. Lowery

Decision Date02 December 1971
Docket Number26756,Nos. 26754,s. 26754
Citation228 Ga. 452,185 S.E.2d 915
PartiesJack D. KNIGHT, Jr. v. William D. LOWERY, Jr. Jack D. KNIGHT v. William D. LOWERY, Jr.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. A release, granted by one injured in an automobile accident in favor of the party responsibile for the injury, does not also release a physician alleged to have been negligent in his subsequent treatment of the injury unless (a) all damages, including those caused by the doctor, are paid in full, or (b) the parties intended thereby to release both tort-feasors.

2. Parol evidence may be admitted in favor of or against a stranger to a release to ascertain the true intention of the parties with regard to those persons who were to be bound to covered by the release.

Levin, Askew, Warfield, Graff & Mabie, Lefferts L. Mabie, Jr., Pensacola, Fla., Colson & Hicks, Robert Orseck, Miami, Fla., Jay, Garden & Sherrell, Clayton Jay, Jr., Fitzgerald, for appellants.

Watson, Keenan, Spence & Lowe, G. Stuart Watson, Divine, Busbee & Wilkin, George Busbee, Albany, for appellee.

ALMAND, Chief Justice.

This case is before us by grant of the writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals. At issue is this question: Does a release, granted by one injured in an automobile accident in favor of the party responsible for the injury and 'all other persons,' also release a physician alleged to have been negligent in his subsequent treatment of the injuries?

Jack D. Knight, Jr., a minor, sustained serious and permanent injuries in an automobile accident on February 25, 1967, and was treated by Dr. William D. Lowery, Jr., a neurosurgeon, from February 25 until April 1, at which time the boy was transferred to his hometown hospital. After again examining the boy on April 12, Dr. Lowery had no further contact with the Knights until this suit was commenced.

On June 30, Jack D. Knight, Sr., individually and as guardian of his son, and Mrs. Knight, the boy's mother, executed a release in favor of Harold and Jack Boling, the driver and owner of the automobile involved; State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, the Bolings' insurance carrier; and 'all other persons.' In return, the Knights received a payment of $10,500, which was the extent of the Bolings' liability and medical payment coverage with State Farm.

The release signed by the Knights was a pre-printed form containing blank spaces in which were inserted the typewritten names of the Bolings and of State Farm, the date of the accident, and a brief description of the accident. Dr. Lowery was not named. The document is entitled 'Release' and provides as follows: '. . . the undersigned hereby releases and forever discharges Jack Boling, Harold Boling and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company their heirs, executors, administrators, agents and assigns, and all other persons, firms or corporations liable or who might be claimed to be liable, none of whom admit any liability but all expressly deny any liability, from any and all claims, demands, damages, actions, causes of action or suits of any kind or nature whatsoever and particularly on account of all injuries, known and unknown, both to person and property which have resulted or may in the future develop from an accident which occurred on or about the 24 day of February, 1967 at or near Fitzgerald, Ben Hill County, Georgia, in which accident Jack D. Knight, Jr., minor son of the undersigned sustained severe, permanent and permanently disabling injuries.

'Undersigned hereby declares that the terms of this settlement have been completely read and are fully understood and voluntarily accepted for the purpose of making a full and final compromise adjustment and settlement of any and all claims, disputed or otherwise, on account of the injuries and damages above mentioned, and for the express purpose of precluding forever any further or additional claims arising out of the aforesaid accident.'

Thereafter, the Knights filed suit against Dr. Lowery for professional negligence, alleging that he had failed to diagnose and remove a subdural hematoma which developed during his course of treatment, thereby causing further injury to their son's brain. Dr. Lowery gave as one of his defenses the aforementioned release, asserting that it barred the action. The trial judge granted the doctor's motion for summary judgment made on that basis, and the Knights appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals, 124 Ga.App. 172, 183 S.E.2d 221, affirmed the trial court, holding, 'purely as a matter of contract law,' that the release was unambiguous, and that Dr. Lowery was entitled, as a donee beneficiary, to rely upon the release and to invoke the parol evidence rule to prevent its variance.

We granted the writ of certiorari and now reverse.

1. We consider first whether the Knights, by releasing the Bolings and State Farm from liability, thereby were precluded as a matter of law, from bringing suit against Dr. Lowery for his alleged negligence in the subsequent treatment of their son's injury. A majority of the courts which have considered this question have ruled that such an action is barred, unless the physician's negligence has produced an entirely new injury. These cases are collected in annotations found in 39 A.L.R.3d 260 and 40 A.L.R.2d 1075. Indeed, the annotations indicate that Georgia is a part of that majority by virtue of Edmondson v. Hancock, 40 Ga.App. 587, 151 S.E. 114. In that 1929 decision, the Court of Appeals held that a physician employed by a railroad company was not liable to an employee of the company for aggravation of injuries for which the company was responsible where the employee had executed a release acknowledging satisfaction by the company of his damages. However, we have found no Supreme Court decision which is directly in point.

As noted in the annotation in 39 A.L.R.3d 260, 264, a number of courts which formerly supported the majority rule have repudiated it, while others, faced with the issue for the first time, have rejected it. The growing minority view is that 'a release by an injured party of the one responsible for the injury does not of itself, in the absence of language indicative of such an intention on the part of the parties, preclude an action by the injured party against the negligently treating physician or surgeon, at least unless there has been full compensation for the injured party's total injuries.' 39 A.L.R.3d 260, 264. We now adopt the minority view.

This court long ago ruled that a release executed in favor of one joint tortfeasor, in full settlement of damages, acts also as a release in favor of all other joint tort-feasors. Donaldson v. Carmichael, 102 Ga. 40, 29 S.E. 135. The reasons underlying this doctrine are, first, that joint tort-feasors contribute to a single injury for which there is but one cause of action, and second, that once the damage has been paid in full by one joint tortfeasor, the injured party has no right to seek an additional, or double, recovery from another. We do not deal today with the soundness of that holding, since the situation which it exemplifies is not present in the instant case.

Here, the physician and the driver of the automobile did not act in concert to produce a single injury, and they are not joint tortfeasors. Rather, we conclude that they are successive tortfeasors, and that Dr. Lowery's alleged negligence, while contributing to the overall damage, was subsequent to the original injury and created in favor of the injured party a separate cause of action against him. We are in full accord with the view taken by the New York Court of Appeals in Derby v. Prewitt, 12 N.Y.2d 100, 236 N.Y.S.2d 953, 187 N.E.2d 556, wherein it is said:

'Their wrongs were independent and successive, rather than joint, and this being so, the plaintiff had not one but two separate and distinct causes of action, one against the cab driver for the negligent operation of his vehicle and the other against the doctor for his alleged malpractice in treating the fracture which the plaintiff sustained in the automobile accident. It is true that the driver could have been held liable for the aggravation of the injury caused by the doctor's negligence but, as pointed out above, that liability is not the result of any concept of joint wrongs but is rather the product of the familiar rule that a wrongdoer is reasonable for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his tortious act, including the negligent conduct of others. Conversely, it would defy reason to hold the physician liable for injuries caused by the original wrongdoer which were not the consequences of his own carelessness, and no one suggests that a release of the doctor would completely discharge the original wrongdoer.

'Nor does the second asserted reason for the release doctrine-the presumption of full satisfaction-make any sense in the context of this case. Irrebuttable presumptions have their place in the law but only where public policy demands that inquiry cease. Where the cause of action is single and the liability of one wrongdoer is identical with that of the other, there may be warrant for erecting such a barrier to suit after settlement. However, where, as here, neither of these elements is present, there is...

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