Moss v. City of Oklahoma City, 76982

Decision Date23 May 1995
Docket NumberNo. 76982,76982
Citation897 P.2d 280
PartiesRoland MOSS and Lesa Ann Routh, Co-Administrators of The Estate of Bryan E. Moss, deceased; Roland Moss and Lesa Ann Routh, individually; Douglas Roy McBride, individually; and Jackie McBride, individually, Appellants, v. The CITY OF OKLAHOMA CITY; and Mansur, Daubert and Strella, Inc., an Oklahoma corporation, Appellees, and State of Oklahoma ex rel. Department of Transportation; and T.J. Campbell Construction Company, Inc., an Oklahoma corporation, Defendants.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals, Division No. 4, Appeal from the District Court of Oklahoma County; Richard W. Freeman, Trial Judge.

Before suing appellees for purported negligent placement of a stop sign, and negligent design and maintenance of an intersection, appellants settled with the parents of the driver of one of the vehicles involved in a vehicular accident at the intersection and the parents' insurer. Appellants signed releases submitted by the insurance company which contained blank spaces where the names of the parents released were handwritten in, followed by broad boilerplate language seemingly releasing the entire world from any and all liability. Each appellee moved for summary judgment arguing the plain language of the releases discharged them from liability even though they were not parties to the settlement or named in the releases, and even though they submitted no evidence they paid any consideration to secure the releases. In response appellants submitted affidavits to show the releases were intended only to release the parents and their insurer and no one else. The trial court refused to consider this extrinsic evidence and he sustained the motions for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed. HELD: Summary judgment was improper. In order to comply with the dictates of 12 O.S.1991, § 832(H)(1), a part of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, a release must name or otherwise specifically identify the tortfeasors to be discharged. Broad boilerplate language like that contained in the instant releases is not sufficient. Accordingly, appellees were not discharged because they were neither named or otherwise specifically identified in the releases.

CERTIORARI PREVIOUSLY GRANTED; COURT OF APPEALS' OPINION VACATED; TRIAL COURT JUDGMENTS REVERSED AND REMANDED.

R. Thomas Beadles, Bryce Johnson, Beadles, Johnson & Biscone, Oklahoma City, for appellants.

Richard C. Smith, Tina A. Hughes, Asst. Mun. Counselors, Oklahoma City, for appellee City of Oklahoma City.

Hugh A. Baysinger, Haven Tobias, James M. Reid, Pierce Couch Hendrickson Baysinger & Green, Oklahoma City, for appellee Mansur, Daubert and Strella, Inc.

LAVENDER, Justice.

The issue in this case is whether under 12 O.S.1991, § 832(H)(1), a part of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act (UCATA), all potential tortfeasors are discharged from liability to injured parties as a matter of law by virtue of a release signed by the injured parties which contains the names of persons to be released, along with other generalized broad language which, in essence, also purports to release the entire world from any and all claims. We hold in order to comply with the dictates of § 832(H)(1) a release given to a tortfeasor liable to an injured party will discharge other tortfeasors potentially liable for the same injury or wrongful death only if they are named or otherwise specifically identified in the release.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In June 1989, Bryan Moss was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Larry Dale Chasteen which collided with a vehicle driven by appellant, Douglas Roy McBride. As a result of the collision, Chasteen and Moss were killed, and McBride was injured. After the accident, Moss's parents, appellants Roland Moss and Lesa Ann Routh, and McBride and his wife Jackie McBride (also an appellant), filed claims with the insurance carrier for Chasteen's parents (Lawrence and Barbara), Allstate Insurance Company. Appellants settled their claims against the Chasteens--the McBrides executing a release in September 1989 and Roland and Lesa Ann executing a release the next month. The claims were apparently settled for the Chasteen's policy limits, the McBrides receiving $10,000.00 and Roland and Lesa Ann $5,000.00 each. Both releases had the names of Lawrence and Barbara Chasteen handwritten in blank spaces provided on the pre-printed release forms. In addition, each release contained broad language purporting to release "any other person, firm or corporation charged or chargeable with responsibility or liability ... from any and all claims, demands, damages, costs, expenses, loss of services, actions and causes of action arising from any act or occurrence up to the present time, and particularly on account of all personal injury, disability, property damage, loss or damages of any kind sustained ... in consequence of an accident that occurred on or about the 23 day of June, 1989...."

In April 1990, appellants sued appellees, the City of Oklahoma City and Mansur, Daubert and Strella, Inc., alleging negligent placement of a stop sign and negligent design and maintenance of the intersection where the accident occurred. Mansur, etc., who allegedly designed the intersection, and the City, who allegedly maintained it, separately moved for summary judgment. They contended the clear and unambiguous broad language contained in the releases discharged them from liability, even though the record appears undisputed they paid no consideration to appellants for the releases. 1

In response to the summary judgment motions appellants argued § 832 should be interpreted so as to allow extrinsic evidence to show the true intent of the parties to the releases, which according to appellants was to release only the Chasteens and their insurer. Affidavits were submitted by all appellants which stated their intent was to release only the Chasteens and no other unnamed potential tortfeasor. An affidavit was also submitted by the claims adjustor for Allstate who stated the releases submitted to and signed by appellants were intended by Allstate to release only its insureds (the Chasteens) and Allstate, and no other potential tortfeasor.

The trial court sustained the motions for summary judgment, concluding as a matter of law the releases discharged all tortfeasors, both named and unnamed. In addition, the trial court decided extrinsic evidence would not be admissible to determine the intended scope of the releases, but they must be interpreted from their plain language. Appellants appealed on the issue of the intended scope of the releases. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a 2-1 decision. We granted certiorari to consider the effect of 12 O.S.1991, § 832, on a general release purporting to discharge a named tortfeasor and "any other person, firm, or corporation from any and all claims." 2

I.

The ancient common law rule, which was grounded upon a formalistic view that a release extinguished the cause of action to which it related, was that a release of one joint tortfeasor released all other joint tortfeasors, regardless of the intent of the parties. Zenith Radio Corporation v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 401 U.S. 321, 343, 91 S.Ct. 795, 808, 28 L.Ed.2d 77 (1971), reh. denied 401 U.S. 1015, 91 S.Ct. 1247, 28 L.Ed.2d 552 (1971); Neves v. Potter, 769 P.2d 1047, 1049-1050 (Colo.1989). In conformity with this precept, as a general rule, at common law, the release and discharge from all damages by an injured person acted to release all joint tortfeasors despite a statement in the release to the contrary. See All American Bus Lines v. Saxon, 197 Okla. 395, 172 P.2d 424, 428 (1946) (general rule recognized but not followed); See also Bland v. Lawyer-Cuff Co., 72 Okla. 128, 178 P. 885, 890 (1918) (recognizing, but not following, unspecified earlier cases that were committed to doctrine that a release of one or more joint tortfeasors was a release of all). The rationale for the common law rule was that "where two or more tortfeasors acted in concert to cause an injury, the act of one became the act of all and a single cause of action, with each participant being liable for the entire loss sustained by the plaintiff." Neves, supra, 769 P.2d at 1049. Critics of the common law rule characterized it as harsh or unfair "because it compels the plaintiff either to forego any opportunity of obtaining what it is possible to get from one defendant without suit, or to give up the entire claim against the other without full compensation." W. PAGE KEETON, ET AL., PROSSER AND KEETON ON TORTS § 49, at 333 (5th ed. 1984); see also J. CALAMARI AND J. PERILLO, CONTRACTS § 20-3, at 848 (3d ed. 1987) (criticism that release of one joint promisor or obligor releases the others).

In order to ameliorate the harshness of the old common law rule courts retreated from it in one way or another. PROSSER AND KEETON ON TORTS, supra, § 49, at 333-334. One such retreat was to recognize that an injured party could merely agree not to sue the tortfeasor settled with and embody this agreement in a covenant not to sue said tortfeasor, rather than entering into a release of the tortfeasor from further damages. Id. at 334. This Court has recognized the viability of a covenant not to sue and we have held a covenant not to sue is not a release at all and will not have the effect of releasing other potentially liable tortfeasors. All American Bus Lines v. Saxon, supra, 172 P.2d at 426-429. Another device used to ameliorate the harshness of the common law rule was that a release of one tortfeasor containing a reservation of rights against another would be recognized as a covenant not to sue the tortfeasor released and would not as a matter of law release other tortfeasors. Id., at 425, Second Syllabus; Harn v. Interstate Building & Loan Co., 77 Okla. 265, 188 P. 343, 346 (19...

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