Noonan v. Williams

Decision Date12 December 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95-CV-240.,95-CV-240.
Citation686 A.2d 237
PartiesWillie NOONAN, Appellant, v. Leo A. WILLIAMS, Appellee.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Stacy A. Feuer, Washington, DC, with whom Keith W. Donahoe was on the brief, Washington, DC, for appellant.

Stephen A. Horvath, with whom Dawn E. Boyce was on the brief, for appellee.

Before TERRY, KING, and RUIZ, Associate Judges.

TERRY, Associate Judge:

Our task in this case is to construe a general release from liability that appellant signed after an automobile accident in which he was injured. We must decide whether an alleged joint tortfeasor (appellee Williams) is discharged from liability when the injured party (appellant Noonan) executes a general release that purports to release not only two other named tortfeasors, but "all other" potentially liable persons. The trial court answered this question in the affirmative and granted summary judgment for Williams. We reverse.


A taxicab and a private automobile collided at the corner of North Capitol and Channing Streets, N.W., on December 15, 1992. Noonan was a passenger in the taxicab, which was owned by Capitol Cab Cooperative Association, Inc. ("Capitol Cab"), and was driven by Hubert Jefferson. Williams was the driver of the other car. About five months later, Noonan executed a general release of Capitol Cab and Jefferson in exchange for a $25,000 settlement. In pertinent part, the release stated that Noonan agreed to

release, remise, acquit and forever discharge the Capitol Cab Cooperative Association, Inc., a body corporate and Hubert Jefferson and his, her, their, or its agents, servants, employees, successors, heirs, executors, administrators and all other persons, firms, associations or partnerships, both known and unknown, of and from any and all claims, actions, causes of action, demands, rights, liabilities, damages, costs, loss of service, expenses and compensation of whatsoever kind or nature which the undersigned now has/have or which may hereafter accrue on account of or in any way growing out of any and all known and unknown, apparent and not apparent, foreseen and unforeseen bodily and personal injuries and property damage and the consequences thereof resulting or to result from the accident, casualty or event which occurred on or about the 15th day of December 1992, at or near No. Capitol & Channing St., N.W. Emphasis added.

The release was executed on a printed form, with blanks to be filled in. Jefferson's name, the date and location of the accident, and the amount of the settlement were typed in those blanks; everything else was pre-printed.

After signing the release, Noonan filed this suit against Williams, alleging that the accident was due to Williams' negligence and seeking damages in the amount of $100,000. Williams filed an answer and then a third-party complaint against Jefferson. Some time later, Williams filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the release of Jefferson and Capitol Cab had also released him from liability. In response, Noonan submitted three affidavits from himself, his counsel at the time of the release, and counsel for Capitol Cab and Jefferson. According to Noonan, these affidavits clearly showed an intent by the contracting parties to release claims against Capitol Cab and Jefferson only.

Initially the trial court denied Williams' motion for summary judgment, stating that "genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute pertaining to the meaning of the release agreement." Williams filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the court had erroneously considered the affidavits submitted by Noonan in violation of the parol evidence rule, and that even if they were properly before the court, the affidavits did not identify any agreement to limit the scope of the release to the specifically named releasees. Noonan opposed the motion for reconsideration, asserting that the release was ambiguous on its face, and that the affidavits resolved the ambiguity by establishing that the intention of the parties was to resolve only Noonan's claims against Capitol Cab and Jefferson.

After reconsidering the matter, the court reversed its earlier position and granted summary judgment for Williams. In its order the court said:

The language of the "Release of All Claims" agreement . . . clearly and unambiguously releases not only Third Party Defendant Jefferson, but also "all other persons . . . from any and all claims . . . resulting from the accident . . . which occurred on or about the 15th day of December, 1992."

On appeal from the judgment against him, Noonan makes two arguments. First, he contends that the trial court's ruling that the release was clear and unambiguous in releasing all potentially liable persons is incorrect as a matter of law. Second, he maintains that the court erred in failing to consider extrinsic evidence in the form of affidavits showing the parties' intentions. We agree with Noonan's first contention. We also agree with his second contention that extrinsic evidence should have been considered to ascertain the parties' intent, but we find the affidavits inconclusive. We hold that a general release like the one signed by Noonan, which provides for the release of "all other persons," discharges only those joint tortfeasors whom the contracting parties actually intended to be released. Because in this case there are material issues of fact regarding that intent, we reverse the grant of summary judgment.

A. The District of Columbia

At common law, a release of one joint tortfeasor operated as a release of all joint tortfeasors. See Kaplowitz v. Kay, 63 App. D.C. 178, 179, 70 F.2d 782, 783 (1934). "The traditional rationale given for this 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 v. Potter, 769 P.2d 1047, 1049 (Colo. 1989) (citation omitted). Over time, however, the harshness of the common law rule was widely criticized by courts and commentators "because it served as a trap for unknowing plaintiffs, barring them from suing additional tortfeasors and, in some cases, from obtaining full relief for their injuries." Sims v. Honda Motor Co., 225 Conn. 401, 406-407, 623 A.2d 995, 998 (1993) (citations omitted). Thus in 1943 the District of Columbia abandoned the common law rule in McKenna v. Austin, 77 U.S.App. D.C. 228, 234, 134 F.2d 659, 665 (1943), in which the court held that "partial satisfaction taken in compromise and release of liability of one or some of the wrongdoers does not discharge the others."

In recent years this court has twice had occasion to apply the holding of McKenna. In Hill v. McDonald, 442 A.2d 133 (D.C.1982), and again in Lamphier v. Washington Hospital Center, 524 A.2d 729 (D.C. 1987), we summarized the governing principles as follows:

In McKenna, the court held that the effect of a release of a joint tortfeasor was ordinarily a question of fact dependent on two inquiries: (1) did the plaintiff intend to release all wrongdoers or only the particular party named in the release; and (2) did the amount settled for fully compensate the plaintiff, or was it taken merely as the best obtainable compromise for the settler's liability. . . . Only where the terms of the release "leave no room for doubt" should these decisions be made as a matter of law.

Hill, 442 A.2d at 138-139 (citations omitted); see Lamphier, 524 A.2d at 735 (quoting Hill).

In answering both of McKenna's questions, we adhere to the doctrine that releases are contracts and should be construed according to established rules of contract interpretation. See, e.g., Lamphier, 524 A.2d at 732; Giordano v. Interdonato, 586 A.2d 714, 720 (D.C.1991) ("ordinary contract principles govern a release"); Bolling Federal Credit Union v. Cumis Insurance Society, 475 A.2d 382, 385 (D.C.1984); Wolcott v. Ginsburg, 697 F.Supp. 540, 544 (D.D.C.1988). Thus, in construing a release, a court must regard the parties' intentions as paramount. Lamphier, 524 A.2d at 732; see Leiken v. Wilson, 445 A.2d 993, 998 n. 7 (D.C.1982) ("the court must focus on the intent of the parties in order to determine whether a release operates to limit liability of only those who were party to the agreement or also limits liability of other joint tortfeasors" (citing McKenna)). "If the release is facially unambiguous, we must rely solely upon its language as providing the best objective manifestation of the parties' intent." Bolling, 475 A.2d at 385; see 1010 Potomac Associates v. Grocery Manufacturers of America, Inc., 485 A.2d 199, 205 (D.C.1984). However, "if the document is ambiguous, extrinsic evidence of the parties' subjective intent may be resorted to." Lamphier, 524 A.2d at 732 (citation omitted); see Giordano, 586 A.2d at 720; 1010 Potomac Associates, 485 A.2d at 205-206. The use of extrinsic evidence is also permitted "to determine the circumstances surrounding the making of the agreement, so that it may be ascertained what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would have thought the words meant." Lamphier, 524 A.2d at 732 (citation omitted).

B. Other Jurisdictions

Outside the District of Columbia, most jurisdictions that have abolished the common law rule have done so by statute,1 choosing generally to adopt language from one of three model acts: the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act § 4(a) (1955), 12 U.L.A. 264 (1996) (UCATA); the Uniform Joint Obligations Act § 4 (1925), 13 U.L.A. 422 (1986) (UJOA); or the Uniform Comparative Fault Act § 6 (1977), 12 U.L.A. 147 (1996) (UCFA).2 Both UCATA and UCFA state that a joint tortfeasor is not discharged from liability by a release unless terms of the release so provide, whereas UJOA declares that joint tortfeasors are discharged unless the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
14 cases
  • Hollins v. Federal Nat. Mortg. Ass'n, No. 97-CV-538.
    • United States
    • D.C. Court of Appeals
    • 12 Octubre 2000
    ...the motion . . . resolv[ing] against the moving party any doubts about the existence of a material factual dispute." Noonan v. Williams, 686 A.2d 237, 244 (D.C.1996) (citing Colbert). To be entitled to summary judgment, the moving party must "demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of ma......
  • Neverkovec v. Fredericks
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 18 Agosto 1999 unambiguous, while others hold that extrinsic evidence may only be consulted to resolve an ambiguity. (See, e.g., Noonan v. Williams (D.C.App.1996) 686 A.2d 237, 241-244, Hansen v. Ford Motor Co. (1995) 120 N.M. 203, 900 P.2d 952, 956-958, and Sims v. Honda Motor Co. (1993) 225 Conn. 401......
  • Convit v. Wilson, No. 07-CV-585.
    • United States
    • D.C. Court of Appeals
    • 17 Septiembre 2009 the joint liability context) to vicarious liability. The trial court also looked to considerations which we highlighted in Noonan, supra note 16, in interpreting settlement agreements and releases according to contract principles — the intent of the parties, and the extent to which the s......
  • Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Skolnick
    • United States
    • Florida District Court of Appeals
    • 15 Julio 2015
    ...that the unnamed tortfeasor (who seeks to assert the release as an affirmative defense) failed to pay consideration.” Noonan v. Williams, 686 A.2d 237, 242 (D.C.1996).3 New York's adoption—and application—of the “flat bar” rule arose in Wells v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, Inc., 72 N.......
  • 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