Skuzinski v. Bouchard Fuels, Inc.

Decision Date06 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. 15564,15564
Citation240 Conn. 694,694 A.2d 788
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesAlfons SKUZINSKI v. BOUCHARD FUELS, INC., et al.

William F. Gallagher, with whom were Kurt D. Koehler, Thomas J. Airone, Joseph Trotta and Erica Todd, New Haven, for appellants (defendants).

Ann Grunbeck Monaghan, with whom were John L. Hayes, Hartford and, on the brief, Lloyd D. Petersen, Washington, DC, for appellees (third party defendants).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and NORCOTT, PALMER, McDONALD and PETERS, JJ.

OPINION

PETERS, Associate Justice.

The principal issue in this appeal is whether, as a condition to a common law action for indemnification, a tortfeasor must establish the existence of an independent relationship between itself and the joint tortfeasor from which it seeks indemnity. The plaintiff, Alfons Skuzinski, filed a complaint seeking damages for personal injuries that he had sustained when he was struck by a truck operated by the defendant Brian Bouchard and owned by the defendant Bouchard Fuels, Inc. (Bouchard). 1 Bouchard then filed a third party complaint against the third party defendants, C.B.C. Associates (C.B.C.) and V.S.F., Inc., doing business as Clearview Liquor Shoppe (Clearview), in which Bouchard alleged that it was entitled to indemnity because the failure of the third party defendants to clear snow from their sidewalk had caused the plaintiff to walk in the adjacent street, where he was injured. The trial court granted the third party defendants' motions to strike the third party complaint and subsequently rendered judgment in their favor. After a jury trial, the plaintiff recovered damages from Bouchard in the amount of $1,400,000. Bouchard appealed to the Appellate Court from the judgment in favor of the third party defendants, 2 and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). We affirm the judgment of the trial court, but on alternate grounds.

"In an appeal from a judgment granting a motion to strike, we operate in accordance with well established principles. We take the facts to be those alleged in the [third party] complaint that has been stricken and we construe the [third party] complaint in the manner most favorable to sustaining its legal sufficiency." Bohan v. Last, 236 Conn. 670, 674, 674 A.2d 839 (1996); Waters v. Autuori, 236 Conn. 820, 825, 676 A.2d 357 (1996); RK Constructors, Inc. v. Fusco Corp., 231 Conn. 381, 384, 650 A.2d 153 (1994).

In its third party complaint, Bouchard alleged, inter alia, that C.B.C. controlled and operated premises located at 192 Hall Avenue in Meriden and that Clearview was in the business of selling alcoholic beverages on those premises. Bouchard also alleged that, prior to the accident, the plaintiff had entered the premises of the third party defendants, as an invitee, and had purchased alcoholic beverages there. Bouchard further alleged that the third party defendants had failed to remove snow on the sidewalk in front of their premises and had failed to warn the plaintiff of the risks associated with the existing snow cover, and that, as a result, after having made his purchases, the plaintiff proceeded to walk in the street on Hall Avenue, where he was struck by Bouchard's truck. The third party complaint contains no allegation, however, of any independent legal relationship of any kind between Bouchard and the third party defendants. As the trial court observed in so ruling in its memorandum of decision: "The relationship between these parties was clearly random and unanticipated...."

The question that we must decide is whether Bouchard's third party complaint is legally sufficient to state a cause of action for common law indemnity. "Ordinarily there is no right of indemnity or contribution between joint tort-feasors.... Where, however, one of the defendants is in control of the situation and his negligence alone is the direct immediate cause of the injury and the other defendant does not know of the fault, has no reason to anticipate it and may reasonably rely upon the former not to commit a wrong, it is only justice that the former should bear the burden of damages due to the injury.... Under the circumstances described, we have distinguished between 'active or primary negligence,' and 'passive or secondary negligence.' ... Indemnity shifts the impact of liability from passive joint tortfeasors to active ones." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kyrtatas v. Stop & Shop, Inc., 205 Conn. 694, 697-98, 535 A.2d 357 (1988); Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., 216 Conn. 65, 74, 579 A.2d 26 (1990); Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., 152 Conn. 405, 412-16, 207 A.2d 732 (1965). 3

For the purposes of the present appeal, the parties agree that, under these precedents, Bouchard's third party complaint must allege facts sufficient to establish at least four separate elements in order to maintain a common law action for indemnity. These elements are: "(1) that the other tortfeasor was negligent; (2) that [that] negligence, rather than [Bouchard's], was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and injuries; (3) that [the other tortfeasor] was in control of the situation to the exclusion of [Bouchard]; and (4) that [Bouchard] did not know of such negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and could reasonably rely on the other tortfeasor not to be negligent." Kyrtatas v. Stop & Shop, Inc., supra, 205 Conn. at 698, 535 A.2d 357; Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., supra, 216 Conn. at 74, 579 A.2d 26; Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., supra, 152 Conn. at 416, 207 A.2d 732.

I

The trial court did not rule expressly on whether Bouchard's third party complaint contained allegations sufficient to satisfy the established four part standard. Instead, it granted the third party defendants' motion to strike on the ground that the third party complaint did not contain allegations of fact sufficient to establish an independent relationship between the parties, a fifth element for a common law action of indemnity that had been articulated by the Appellate Court in Atkinson v. Berloni, 23 Conn.App. 325, 327-28, 580 A.2d 84 (1990). Bouchard claims that this ruling was improper. We have not previously considered whether an independent legal relationship between the indemnitor and the indemnitee is an additional fifth element that a complaint sounding in common law indemnity must satisfy in all cases. We conclude today that our existing precedents contain no such universal requirement and that we should not engraft it onto our existing case law.

In Atkinson, the Appellate Court held that "[i]mplicit in indemnification cases is the requirement of an independent legal relationship between the indemnitor and the indemnitee giving rise to a special duty." Id., at 327, 580 A.2d 84. Recognizing that such an overarching requirement had not been expressly articulated in Connecticut cases dealing with claims for indemnification, the Appellate Court held, nonetheless, that the absence of an independent legal relationship was the implied common thread in the cases in which claims for indemnification had been disallowed. Id., at 328, 580 A.2d 84.

As the Appellate Court in Atkinson acknowledged, however, our precedents have required the showing of a special antecedent legal relationship only in the context of indemnification claims between joint tortfeasors that arise in the context of our workers' compensation law. Id., at 327, 580 A.2d 84. Statutory law provides that, for most purposes, workers' compensation payments are the exclusive source of remedy against an injured employee's employer. General Statutes § 31-284(a); see also Bouley v. Norwich, 222 Conn. 744, 751-52, 610 A.2d 1245 (1992); Pokorny v. Getta's Garage, 219 Conn. 439, 454-55, 594 A.2d 446 (1991). In view of the exclusivity of workers' compensation relief, indemnity claims against employers as joint tortfeasors warrant the special additional limitation of an independent legal relationship. Ferryman v. Groton, 212 Conn. 138, 143-45, 561 A.2d 432 (1989); Farm Bureau Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Kohn Bros. Tobacco Co., 141 Conn. 539, 545, 107 A.2d 406 (1954). In other contexts, although claims for common law indemnification have sometimes been denied, the reason has not been the absence of an independent legal relationship. 4 The third party defendants have cited no precedent, and we know of none, in which we have held that the legal duty of care that is at the core of all liability in tort; see RK Constructors, Inc. v. Fusco Corp., supra, 231 Conn. at 385-86, 650 A.2d 153; depends, in every common law indemnity case, upon proof of an implied or express antecedent relationship between the parties.

To bolster their claims that we should nonetheless impose such a requirement on claims for common law indemnity, the third party defendants urge us to consider the policy implications that flow from recent legislative changes in our tort law. Obviously, the legislature is free to make policy choices that expressly override existing common law precedents. Even in the absence of direct legislative modification of the common law principles that are at issue, legislative actions on related matters may have altered the overall legal landscape so significantly that the continued viability of existing common law precedents is placed in doubt. See, e.g., Fahy v. Fahy, 227 Conn. 505, 513-14, 630 A.2d 1328 (1993); Hamm v. Taylor, 180 Conn. 491, 494-95, 429 A.2d 946 (1980).

In this case, the third party defendants do not claim that the legislature expressly has overridden the common law of indemnity. Rather, they claim that the legislature impliedly has changed the ground rules for such common law claims by enacting General Statutes § 52-572h. 5 Contrary to our common law; see, e.g., Biro v. Hill, 214 Conn. 1, 6, 570 A.2d 182 (1990); § 52-572h now permits contribution among joint...

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