Lerman v. Heeman

Decision Date01 September 1997
Docket NumberNo. 3,3
Citation701 A.2d 426,347 Md. 439
PartiesSheldon H. LERMAN v. Kerry R. HEEMAN. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Mark D. Gately (J. Mark Coulson, Miles & Stockbridge, on brief), Baltimore, for Petitioner.

Catherine W. Steiner (William B. Whiteford, Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, L.L.P., on brief), Baltimore, for Respondent.

Argued before BELL, C.J., ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, RAKER and WILNER, JJ., and ROBERT A. KARWACKI, J. (retired), Specially Assigned.

RAKER, Judge.

The questions presented are whether a joint tortfeasor, who has filed a Motion for Judgment of Contribution or Recovery Over pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-614, must have filed a cross-claim in the underlying tort suit, and whether that Motion for Contribution, when arising out of a medical malpractice action, is subject to mandatory arbitration under the Health Care Malpractice Claims Act. We shall hold that a joint-tortfeasor need not file a cross-claim prior to filing a Motion for Contribution, and that a Motion for Contribution, the decision of which does not require any further resolution of any negligence claims is not subject to mandatory arbitration.

I.

In November of 1992, the Estate of Tiffany L. Troch, et. al. ("claimants") filed a medical malpractice action with the Health Claims Arbitration Office against Petitioner, Sheldon H. Lerman, M.D., his Professional Association (as employer), Respondent, Kerry R. Heeman, M.D., Osler Drive Emergency Physicians Associates (Respondent's employer), and St. Joseph's Hospital. Defendants filed no cross-claims. The arbitration panel returned an award in favor of the claimants and against all the defendants, after which all parties filed a Notice of Rejection with the Health Claims Arbitration Office. Claimants then re-filed their action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Once again, defendants filed no cross-claims.

In September of 1994, a jury returned a verdict against Drs. Lerman and Heeman (and their employers) in the amount of $3,354,808.55. Subsequently, Respondent Heeman's insurer paid $2,354,808.55 and Petitioner Lerman's insurer paid $1,000,000, and each, through their insurers, paid half of the interest due on the judgment, in full satisfaction of the judgment.

In July, 1995, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-614, Heeman filed a Motion for Judgment of Contribution or Recovery Over with the trial court requesting contribution from Lerman in the amount of $677,404.28, the amount by which his payment to the claimants exceeded Dr. Lerman's payment. Dr. Lerman, in turn, filed an Opposition to the Motion. Lerman's Opposition raised two arguments: (1) that the court had no authority to enter a judgment for contribution because Dr. Heeman had never filed a cross-claim against Dr. Lerman and, (2) the court had no jurisdiction to entertain Dr. Heeman's claim for contribution because the contribution claim had not been submitted to arbitration. The trial court granted Heeman's motion and entered judgment in the amount of $677,404.28. Lerman noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, raising the same issues he raised below. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. Lerman v. Heemann, 112 Md.App. 320, 323, 685 A.2d 782, 784 (1996). We granted Lerman's petition for certiorari.

II.

We review the trial court's judgment to determine if the court erred in granting Respondent's Motion for Contribution. Petitioner argues that a court can grant a motion for contribution only if the movant has a right to contribution, and that a right to contribution can be acquired only if it was previously asserted in a cross-claim. We disagree. Respondent's right to contribution is derived from Maryland's adoption of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act ("UCATA"), and is governed by Maryland Rule 2-614. Neither requires a previous assertion of the right to contribution.

To interpret rules of procedure and statutes we use the same canons and principles of construction, beginning our analysis by looking at the plain language--looking to the words of the rule and giving them their ordinary and natural meaning; if the words of the rule are clear and unambiguous, our analysis ordinarily ends. Long v. State, 343 Md. 662, 667, 684 A.2d 445, 447 (1996); In re Victor B., 336 Md. 85, 94, 646 A.2d 1012, 1016 (1994); New Jersey v. Strazzella, 331 Md. 270, 274, 627 A.2d 1055, 1057 (1993); Beales v. State, 329 Md. 263, 271, 619 A.2d 105, 109 (1993). When the language is ambiguous, we may look to the intent behind the statute or rule, but "our mission is to give the rule a reasonable interpretation in tune with logic and common sense." In re Victor B. 336 Md. at 94, 646 A.2d at 1016. See also Strazzella, 331 Md. at 275, 627 A.2d at 1057; Long, 343 Md. at 667, 684 A.2d at 448.

Maryland's earliest version of the UCATA, codified at Article 50 §§ 21-29, stated A pleader may either (a) state as a cross-claim against a co-party any claim that the co-party is or may be liable to the cross-claimant for all or part of a claim asserted in the action against the cross-claimant; or (b) move for judgment for contribution against any other joint judgment debtor, where in a single action a judgment has been entered against joint tortfeasors one of whom has discharged the judgment by payment or has paid more than his pro rata share thereof. If relief can be provided in this sub-section no independent action shall be maintained to enforce the claim for contribution.

1941 Maryland Laws ch. 344, § 27(c), at 549. The 1941 version of the UCATA envisioned motions for contribution as an alternative to cross-claims, an alternative which obviates the need to clutter the judicial process with cross-claims. The 1941 UCATA did not require co-defendants to file cross-claims in the underlying suit prior to moving for contribution. Subsequent statutory revisions to the UCATA and the incorporation of the mechanism for recovery of a right of contribution into the procedural rules do not appear to alter this original intent.

The modern UCATA is codified at Maryland Code (1957, 1994 Repl.Vol., 1997 Supp.) Article 50 §§ 16-24, 1 and the mechanism for enforcing a joint tortfeasor's right to contribution has been codified in Maryland Rule 2-614. Article 50 § 16 defines joint-tortfeasors:

(a) "Joint tort-feasors" means two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them.

Article 50 § 17 defines a right of contribution:

(a) Right exists.--The right of contribution exists among joint tort-feasors.

(b) Discharge of liability or payment of share.--A joint tortfeasor is not entitled to a money judgment for contribution until he has by payment discharged the common liability or has paid more than his pro rata share thereof.

Moreover, Rule 2-614 (previously Rule 605d), 2 states that:

If in a single action a judgment is entered jointly against more than one defendant, the court upon motion may enter an appropriate judgment for one of the defendants against another defendant if (a) the moving defendant has discharged the judgment by payment or has paid more than a pro rata share of the judgment and (b) the moving defendant has a right to contribution or to recovery over from the other defendant.

Niemeyer and Schuett's commentary on this rule explains that this rule is a rule of convenience to permit a co-defendant, Defendant A, to obtain judgment against another co-defendant, Defendant B, who has paid less than his pro rata share of the damages. See Paul V. Niemeyer & Linda M. Schuett, MARYLAND RULES COMMENTARY 475 (2d ed. 1992) ("Although initiation of a separate action by defendant A against defendant B is an alternative method of proceeding, defendant A may avoid a separate lawsuit by filing a motion for judgment in the original action.").

In this case, Respondent has met both requirements for the application of Rule 2-614. Rule 2-614 requires a joint tortfeasor to discharge the judgment or to provide more than a pro rata share of the judgment. Furthermore, it requires that the tortfeasor have a right to contribution, i.e., to be a joint tortfeasor as defined by Article 50 § 17. Montgomery County v. Valk, 317 Md. 185, 191, 562 A.2d 1246, 1249 (1989). In finding both Lerman and Heeman to have breached the standard of care, and to have been proximate causes of death, the jury verdict pronounced Lerman and Heeman to be "joint tortfeasors" as defined by the UCATA. In addition, both parties have stipulated that Respondent has paid more than his pro rata share of the judgment. No rule or statute imposes the additional requirement that a co-defendant "assert" that right in the original trial by filing a cross-claim, and there is no foundation for the belief that any such prerequisite was intended. 3 The only relevant limitations governing Article 50 motions for contribution are those already discussed in Rule 2-614. 4 In summation, we agree with the well reasoned opinion of the Court of Special Appeals. Judge Salmon, writing for the court, concluded that:

[Dr. Lerman] posits that Dr. Heeman did not acquire such a right because he failed to file a cross-claim for contribution. We reject this view and hold that no cross-claim is necessary. Dr. Heeman's right to contribution is derived from section 17(a) of the Uniform Act. Maryland Rule 2-614 provides the mechanism under which the rights granted by the Uniform Act are enforced. Dr. Heeman proved both prerequisites for the application of Rule 2-614.

Lerman v. Heemann, 112 Md.App. at 324-25, 685 A.2d at 785.

Arguing that an unasserted right is a non-existent right, Petitioner believes that Respondent's failure to assert his right to contribution, by means of a cross-claim, extinguishes the right to contribution. This argument ignores the fact that Respondent asserted his right to contribution in his Motion for...

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