McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc.

Decision Date14 January 1986
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 82-0422-S.
PartiesPatricia J. McINNIS, plaintiff, v. HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTOR COMPANY, INC. and A.M.F., Inc., defendants, v. Florence POIRIER, a/k/a Florence Hrosfowyc, third-party defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island

McKinnon & Harwood, John B. Harwood, Daniel V. McKinnon, Pawtucket, R.I., Jones & Aisenberg, Martin W. Aisenberg, Providence, R.I., for plaintiff.

Higgins, Cavanagh & Cooney, Gerald C. DeMaria, Robert J. Quigley, Jr., Providence, R.I., for defendants.

Hinckley, Allen, Tobin & Silverstein, Paul V. Curcio, Gerald J. Petros, Providence, R.I., for third-party defendant.


SELYA, District Judge.

This case, in its present posture, poses a question of first impression under Rhode Island law. An explication follows.


On April 16, 1982, the plaintiff, Patricia McInnis, was driving a motorcycle manufactured by the defendant Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Inc. (H-D).1 She collided with a private passenger automobile driven by the third-party defendant, Florence Poirier. McInnis sustained grievous injuries, including the loss of her left leg.

In November of 1981, McInnis settled her chose in action against the adverse operator, Poirier, for $60,000. She executed a general release (a copy of which is annexed hereto as Appendix A). McInnis then filed suit against H-D, asseverating that the clutch housing of the motorcycle had been negligently designed and was defective and unsafe. She claimed that this defect, rather than (or in combination with) Poirier's careless driving, caused the severance of her limb. (The clutch housing shattered and the plaintiff alleges that a jagged edge inflicted the injury which led to the amputation.) H-D subsequently filed a third-party complaint seeking contribution from Poirier as a joint tortfeasor. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 10-6-1 to 10-6-11 (1985).

The primary case was tried to a jury in this court, Chief Judge Boyle presiding. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of H-D, and the plaintiff appealed. The First Circuit, finding error in the admission of evidence, vacated the judgment and mandated a new trial. McInnis v. A.M.F., Inc., 765 F.2d 240 (1st Cir.1985) (McInnis I). Following remand, the case was reassigned to a new trier in pursuance of D.R.I.L.R. 7(g) ("When an appellate court remands a case to this court for a new trial, the case shall be reassigned to a judge other than the judge before whom the first trial was held.").

The defendants had, during the early stages of the litigation, sought summary judgment based on the execution and delivery of the release to Poirier. Judge Boyle withheld any pretrial ruling on the motion. During trial, the defendants moved for a directed verdict on this ground; decision was reserved. After the jury verdict, H-D renewed the motion; Judge Boyle denied it as moot. The defendants cross-appealed on this ground, but the court of appeals, noting that the trial judge "never reached the difficult legal issues" pertaining to the effect of the release, declined to resolve the conundrum. McInnis I, 765 F.2d at 252.


In the wake of the remand, the legal effect of the general release became the cynosure of all eyes. A smorgasbord of incremental motions ensued. Two of these, each brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, are now before the court, viz:

1. H-D moves for brevis disposition in its favor, asserting that McInnis's release of "Florence Poirier and all other persons, firms or corporations," see Appendix A, had the force, as a matter of law, of discharging its liability to the plaintiff.

2. McInnis cross-moves for partial summary judgment in her favor on the release issue, urging that, as a matter of law, the release discharged only Poirier and did not inure to the benefit of H-D.

On November 27, 1985, a chambers conference was held to consider the desirability of certification of the underlying legal question to the state supreme court pursuant to Rhode Island Supreme Court Rule 6. (The First Circuit expressly invited consideration of such a course of action. McInnis I, 765 F.2d at 252 n. 12.) The parties to the case, who agree on little else, were unanimous in their opposition to certification. They lamented, particularly, the delay inherent in the process. The court is not unsympathetic to their perceived plight.

Where, as here, the signals semaphored by a state tribunal are not completely tenebrous, courts should be slow to certify questions over the unremitting objections of all parties in interest. E.g., Rhode Island Chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus, Inc. v. Rhode Island Lottery Commission, 609 F.Supp. 1403, 1411 (D.R.I.1985); cf. Ciba-Geigy Corp. v. Local # 2548, United Textile Workers of America, AFL-CIO, 391 F.Supp. 287, 297 n. 10 (D.R.I.1975) (abstention disfavored where the parties mutually deplore such a course and where abstention, if imposed unilaterally by the court, would exact a high price from the litigants). Under these circumstances, the court has determined to undertake direct decision of the pending motions.

Oral argument was waived by all parties at the November 27 conference. But, the issue has been plethorically briefed.


This court, sitting in diversity jurisdiction, must determine the effect of the general release executed by McInnis under Rhode Island law. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S.Ct. 817, 822, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938); Lyons v. Salve Regina College, 565 F.2d 200, 202 (1st Cir. 1977); Gleason v. Merchants Mutual Insurance Co., 589 F.Supp. 1474, 1478 (D.R.I. 1984); Plummer v. Abbott Laboratories, 568 F.Supp. 920, 921 (D.R.I.1983); Scuncio Motors, Inc. v. Subaru of New England, Inc., 555 F.Supp. 1121, 1124 (D.R.I.1982), aff'd, 715 F.2d 10 (1st Cir.1983). The Rhode Island Supreme Court has never confronted "the troublesome question of whether, without more, a release of `all persons, firms and corporations' is effective to release unnamed third persons not parties to the release." Lennon v. MacGregor, 423 A.2d 820, 821 n. 1 (R.I. 1980). To the contrary, the state's highest tribunal has twice expressly declined opportunities to decide the question because the particular cases which touched upon the issue did not squarely raise it. See id.; Julian v. Zayre Corp., 120 R.I. 494, 388 A.2d 813, 815 (1978). Yet, the tea leaves can be read in this instance with surprising clarity. This court believes that it has been provided with sufficient guidance to enable it confidently to fulfill its "obligation to make an informed prophecy as to the meaning and effect" of the applicable state law. Scuncio, 555 F.Supp. at 1124.

In another case involving an unsettled question of Rhode Island tort law, this court staked out the perimeters of its task as follows:

This court, sitting in diversity jurisdiction, must determine whether the enumerated facts combine to state a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress under Rhode Island law. Since there are no Rhode Island cases directly on point, it is this court's task to vaticinate what the decision of the Rhode Island Supreme Court would be were that court faced with the issue. In undertaking this forecast, the court must look to relevant, i.e., analogous, state court decisions, and may assay sister state adjudications of the issue. Once the law is divined in accordance with these principles, the court must apply conventional summary judgment standards to the pending Rule 56 motion; and must satisfy itself as to whether or not the movants have demonstrated entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.

Plummer, 568 F.Supp. at 921-22 (citations omitted).

These, then, are the channel markers which this court must follow in charting its course on the release question.


As the motions sub judice have all been brought pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, "the court is constrained by the regimen of that rule." Gleason, 589 F.Supp. at 1478. The summary judgment standard is far easier to articulate than to apply:

It is well settled that summary judgment can be granted only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and where the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Emery v. Merrimack Valley Wood Products, Inc., 701 F.2d 985, 986 (1st Cir.1983); Hahn v. Sargent, 523 F.2d 461, 464 (1st Cir.1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 904, 96 S.Ct. 1495, 47 L.Ed.2d 754 (1976); United Nuclear Corp. v. Cannon, 553 F.Supp. 1220, 1226 (D.R.I.1982); Milene Music, Inc. v. Gotauco, 551 F.Supp. 1288, 1292 (D.R.I. 1982). In determining whether these conditions have been met, the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, Emery v. Merrimack Valley Wood Products, Inc., 701 F.2d at 986; John Sanderson & Co. (WOOL) Pty. Ltd. v. Ludlow Jute Co., 569 F.2d 696, 698 (1st Cir.1978), indulging all inferences favorable to that party. Santoni v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., 677 F.2d 174, 177 (1st Cir.1982); O'Neill v. Dell Publishing Co., 630 F.2d 685, 686 (1st Cir. 1980).

Gonsalves v. Alpine Country Club, 563 F.Supp. 1283, 1285 (D.R.I.1983), aff'd, 727 F.2d 27 (1st Cir.1984). See also Advance Financial Corp. v. Isla Rica Sales, Inc., 747 F.2d 21, 26-27 (1st Cir.1984); Gleason, 589 F.Supp. at 1478-79. As the First Circuit has noted, "summary judgment is a judicial device available only when the effluent stream of controversy has been purified by the exclusion of any genuine issues of material fact." General Electric Co. v. United States Dynamics, Inc., 403 F.2d 933, 934 (1st Cir.1968).

In the case at bar, the statements of material fact filed by the parties in compliance with their respective obligations under D.R.I.L.R. 12.1(a) have measurably simplified the court's task.2 And, at least to the extent limned in Part I ante, the basic facts are not controverted.


H-D's motion for summary...

To continue reading

Request your trial
33 cases
  • Hartman v. City of Providence
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • June 5, 1986
    ...are probative in such circumstances. Murphy v. Erwin-Wasey, Inc., 460 F.2d 661, 663 (1st Cir. 1972); McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Inc., 625 F.Supp. 943, 950 (D.R. I.1986); Plummer, 568 F.Supp. at 922. In making such a judgment, "a federal court may reasonably assume that the st......
  • Neverkovec v. Fredericks
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • August 18, 1999
    ...parties who seek to take gratuitous advantage of an agreement when they are not parties to the agreement"]; McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. (D.R.I.1986) 625 F.Supp. 943, 952 ["Rhode Island courts have adopted a consistently unsympathetic position toward parties who seek to take gratuit......
  • Romska v. Opper
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • March 19, 1999
    ...compensation." Prosser & Keeton, Torts (5th ed.), § 49, p. 335. Thus, the federal district court in McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., 625 F.Supp. 943, 954-955 (D.R.I., 1986), was loath "[t]o preclude redress on the basis of a legal fiction arising from the chance insertion of boil......
  • Noonan v. Williams
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • December 12, 1996 is the intentions of the actors, rather than the presence or absence of buzzwords, which should govern." McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., supra note 6, 625 F.Supp. at 947. Critics suggest that the "intent" rule departs from the general principle that unambiguous contract provisions ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT