Sims v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

Decision Date20 April 1993
Docket NumberNo. 14565,14565
Citation623 A.2d 995,225 Conn. 401
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesKenneth SIMS v. HONDA MOTOR COMPANY, LTD., et al.

Elizabeth A. Gallagher, with whom, on the brief, was William F. Gallagher, New Haven, for appellant (plaintiff).

Jeremy G. Zimmerman, with whom were Elizabeth P. Gilson, New Haven, and, on the brief, Robert A. Calinoff, New York City, pro hac vice, for appellees (defendants).

Before PETERS, C.J., and CALLAHAN, BORDEN, NORCOTT and KATZ, JJ.

PETERS, Chief Justice.

The sole issue in this case, on certification from the United States District Court, is whether, pursuant to General Statutes § 52-572e, 1 an alleged tortfeasor is, as a matter of law, discharged from liability to an injured party by virtue of a general release agreement executed by the injured party that purports to release not only a specifically named tortfeasor, but also all other potentially liable parties, for consideration paid by the named tortfeasor. The plaintiff, Kenneth Sims, filed a product liability action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, alleging that the defendants, Honda Motor Company, Ltd., Honda Research and Development, Ltd., American Honda Motor Company, Inc., and Freedom Corporation, doing business as Freedom Honda, 2 were liable for injuries that Sims sustained while riding a Honda motorcycle. Honda filed an amended answer and asserted special defenses alleging, inter alia, that Sims' claim was barred because Sims, in his settlement with another tortfeasor in the motorcycle accident, had executed a general release of all potential tortfeasors. Sims denied the allegations made in the special defenses, and Honda thereafter moved for summary judgment on the basis of the release. The District Court subsequently certified to this court, pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199a 3 and Practice Book § 4168, 4 several questions relating to the effect of the release. We accepted the certified questions, 5 and now hold that the effect of the release depends upon the contracting parties' intent regarding the release of other potentially liable parties.

The District Court record reveals the following facts, which were alleged by Sims in his complaint or stipulated to by the parties. In 1986, Sims purchased a new Honda motorcycle. On May 29, 1987, while riding the Honda motorcycle, Sims was struck by a vehicle owned and operated by Emanuel Byrd. As a result of injuries sustained in the collision, Sims' left leg was amputated above the knee. Sims also suffered severe shock to his nervous system, severe pain, mental anguish, nervousness and permanent scarring.

After the collision, Sims, represented by counsel, entered into negotiations with Byrd's insurer, and subsequently executed a release of claims that Byrd's insurer had prepared. The release provided that Sims would receive $50,000 from Byrd and his insurers in consideration for Sims' agreement to "release, acquit and forever discharge" Byrd and his insurers, as well as "any and all" other parties, from "any and all" claims arising out of the May 29, 1987 collision. 6 Honda was neither a party to the negotiations that led to the execution of the release, nor did it contribute to the consideration given to Sims.

In response to Honda's motion for summary judgment in the District Court, the attorney who had represented Sims in the negotiations with Byrd's insurers filed an affidavit stating that the product liability action against Honda had been under consideration at the time Sims had executed the release. The attorney also stated that he had never intended that Sims would release Honda from liability by signing the release. Sims also filed an affidavit in the District Court stating that, when he had signed the release, he had had no intention of releasing Honda from liability.

In his brief in this court, Sims claims that the release is not effective to discharge Honda from liability as a matter of law because, under § 52-572e, only those tortfeasors expressly named in a release are discharged from liability, unless the releasing party manifestly intended to release unnamed tortfeasors. Sims contends, therefore, that the language, "any and all other persons, firms and corporations," in the release that he executed is ambiguous as to whether it releases Honda and, accordingly, that it must be construed in his favor.

Honda claims, on the other hand, that the language of § 52-572e does not require a release to designate expressly those tortfeasors that the parties sought to discharge from liability. Honda asserts, therefore, that the language in question is effective to release it from liability. Honda also contends, in the alternative, that the language of the release must be interpreted in light of the parties' intent and that the release executed by Sims must, as a matter of law, be held effective to discharge Honda, a potential tortfeasor known to Sims at the time he executed the release. 7

The certified issue is one of first impression in this court, although it has been addressed in other jurisdictions and in one published Superior Court decision. We conclude that a general release like that signed by Sims, which provides for the release of "any and all other persons, firms and corporations," discharges only those joint tortfeasors whom the contracting parties actually intended to be released.

I

At common law in Connecticut, a release of one joint tortfeasor operated as a release of all joint tortfeasors. See Dwy v. Connecticut Co., 89 Conn. 74, 77, 92 A. 883 (1915). "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). This common law rule was widely criticized by courts and commentators as unjust 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. See, e.g., McInnis v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., 625 F.Supp. 943, 947 (D.R.I.1986) (applying Rhode Island law); Moore v. Missouri Pacific Railroad, 299 Ark. 232, 239-40, 773 S.W.2d 78 (1989); Bjork v. Chrysler Corporation, 702 P.2d 146, 152-54 (Wyo.1985); W. Prosser & W. Keeton, Torts (5th Ed.1984) § 49, p. 333; R. Satter, Changing Roles of Courts and Legislatures, 11 Conn.L.Rev. 230, 236 (1979); see also Fulmore v. Coleman, 41 Conn.Sup. 353, 354, 574 A.2d 1337 (1989) (Berdon, J.).

In 1969, the Connecticut legislature abrogated the common law rule by enacting General Statutes § 52-572e, which derives from the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act. 8 Public Acts 1969, No. 69-143. Section 52-572e provides in relevant part: "(b) A release by the injured person, or his legal representative, of one joint tortfeasor does not discharge the other tortfeasors unless, and only to the extent, the release so provides." (Emphasis added.)

As the Illinois Supreme Court noted regarding a statute similar to § 52-572e, "[t]he legislature intended to abolish the common law rule that produced an involuntary discharge of joint tortfeasors." (Emphasis added.) Alsup v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 101 Ill.2d 196, 201, 77 Ill.Dec. 738, 461 N.E.2d 361 (1984). Moreover, the Illinois court held that, if a general release were construed to discharge all tortfeasors regardless of whether their release had been contemplated by the contracting parties, "an important purpose of the [statute] would be thwarted by the unintended release of persons who were strangers to the release contract." Id. Accordingly, we conclude that § 52-572e reflects a legislative preference for preserving an unknowing injured party's opportunity to seek relief from responsible tortfeasors and a policy against enforcing an injured party's involuntary discharge of responsible tortfeasors.

II

The primary issue in this case is one of contract interpretation: does the general release executed by Sims provide for the release of Honda within the meaning of § 52-572e? 9 In jurisdictions with statutes similar to § 52-572e, courts interpreting releases with all-inclusive language, like that in the release executed by Sims, have generally taken one of three approaches, none of which appears to have captured a majority.

A

Some courts have adopted a "flat bar" rule, holding that, as a matter of law, a release "provides" for the discharge of all potential joint tortfeasors if it purports to discharge not only the named tortfeasors, but also any and all other parties. See, e.g., Mussett v. Baker Material Handling Corporation, 844 F.2d 760, 762 (10th Cir.1988) (applying Oklahoma law); State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Reynolds, 676 F.Supp. 106, 107 (W.D.Va.1987) (applying Virginia law); Doganieri v. United States, 520 F.Supp. 1093, 1097 (N.D.W.Va.1981) (applying West Virginia law); Peters v. Butler, 253 Md. 7, 9-10, 251 A.2d 600 (1969); Battle v. Clanton, 27 N.C.App. 616, 621, 220 S.E.2d 97 (1975), cert. denied, 289 N.C. 613, 223 S.E.2d 391 (1976); Hasselrode v. Gnagey, 404 Pa. 549, 552-53, 172 A.2d 764 [225 Conn. 409] (1961). The "flat bar" rule yields a broad construction of both the "so provides" language of the statute and the "any and all" language of the release.

Most "flat bar" courts hold that, because a release purporting to discharge all other parties from liability is unambiguous, it must be construed with reference only to the language used and not to any extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent. See Mussett v. Baker Material Handling Corporation, supra, at 762; State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Reynolds, supra, at 107; Doganieri v. United States, supra, at 1097; Peters v. Butler, supra, 253 Md. at 10, 251 A.2d 600; Hasselrode v. Gnagey, supra, 404 Pa. at 552, 172 A.2d...

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