Welsh By and Through Welsh v. Gerber Products, Inc.

Decision Date24 February 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-1097,87-1097
Citation839 F.2d 1035
PartiesMichael WELSH, a minor By and Through his mother and next friend, Kathleen WELSH; Kathleen Welsh; Patrick Welsh, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. GERBER PRODUCTS, INC., a Michigan Corporation; Century Products, Inc., an Ohio Corporation; Sears Roebuck and Company, a New York Corporation, Defendants-Appellees, v. James A. VOIGT, II, Third Party Defendant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Robert Allen Rohrbaugh (Rohrbaugh & Abbondanza, Rockville, Md., on brief), for plaintiffs-appellants.

Deborah Sweet (Louis G. Close, Jr., Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, Baltimore, Md., on brief), for defendants-appellees.

Before HALL and MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judges, and KAUFMAN, Senior United States District Judge for the District of Maryland, sitting by designation.

K.K. HALL, Circuit Judge:

In this personal injury action brought pursuant to diversity jurisdiction, Michael Welsh, a minor, and his parents, Kathleen and Patrick Welsh ("the Welshes") appeal an order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Gerber Products, Inc., Century Products, Inc., and Sears Roebuck and Company (collectively "Gerber"). The Welshes sought to recover damages for injuries suffered in 1983 by Michael Welsh in a two-automobile accident while riding in an infant car seat manufactured and sold by Gerber. Applying Maryland law, the district court held that the undisputed existence of a satisfied judgment achieved in state court against the negligent driver of the second automobile precluded further action against other joint tortfeasors including Gerber. Because we conclude that the dispositive issue in this appeal presents a question of Maryland law which appears to be unsettled, we certify the question set forth in Part III of this opinion to the Maryland Court of Appeals, pursuant to that state's certification statute, Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. Secs. 12-601 et seq.

I.

On January 26, 1983, a station wagon occupied by the Welshes was struck by a van driven by James Voigt, II. All three members of the family were hurt, but Michael suffered head injuries that were of a particularly severe and permanent nature. At the time of the accident, Michael was sitting in a Century 200 car seat manufactured by Gerber. For reasons yet unsettled, the seat failed to restrain the child and he was thrown forward by the force of the accident.

On February 9, 1984, the Welshes brought a negligence action in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Montgomery County against Voigt. The parties subsequently agreed on June 18, 1985, to settle the litigation for a payment equal to the policy limits of Voigt's automobile insurance coverage. The proposed settlement was announced in open court with plaintiff's counsel stating that "We are accepting the policy limits without prejudice to any rights we have against other individuals, or insurance carriers." The court approved the settlement subject to the preparation of an order and directed that a docket entry be made reflecting that the case had been terminated by settlement. No such entry, however, was ever made.

On July 25, 1986, the parties executed a written copy of their agreement which provided for a payment of $290,423.00 by Voigt's insurance carrier to Continental Casualty Company ("Continental"). Continental, as payor of a "structured" payout arrangement, was to make both immediate and deferred payments to Michael Welsh. 1 The Welshes also executed a release in favor of Voigt which purported to retain all claims against other tortfeasors subject to the pro rata reduction provided in the Maryland Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, Md.Ann.Code Art. 50 Secs. 16-24.

It appears, however, that Voigt was unwilling to terminate the case purely by agreement with Kathleen and Patrick Welsh, thereby risking additional litigation when Michael Welsh reached maturity. Accordingly, Voigt insisted that a judgment be entered that would fully terminate any liability he might have arising from the accident.

On July 26, 1985, the parties filed a joint motion for approval of the negotiated settlement agreement. The court approved the agreement. Then, with the consent of the parties, the court signed an order entering judgment against James Voigt and in favor of the Welshes. The parties filed a "Statement of Satisfaction of Judgment" reflecting the fact that Voigt's insurance carrier had made the agreed payment to Continental. Finally, the clerk entered the judgment "PAID AND SATISFIED" on the docket sheet and assessed costs against Voigt.

On January 21, 1986, the Welshes filed the instant action alleging that the car seat in which Michael was seated at the time of the accident failed to restrain him and thus was the proximate cause of the injuries sustained. 2 The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the satisfied state judgment against Voigt precluded, as a matter of law, any effort to recover damages on behalf of Michael for the same injury. The district court agreed and summary judgment was granted. This appeal followed.

II.

At common law, the release of a claim against one joint tortfeasor by an injured party released all. In the eyes of the law, the plaintiff's harm was the product of concerted action and all defendants were jointly and severally liable for the entire injury. There was, therefore, but one cause of action and a plaintiff was not permitted to segment the litigation by piecemeal resolution. It was assumed that to allow otherwise would open the door for multiple recoveries for the same injury.

Confusion ensued in the nineteenth century when courts began the practice of consolidating all related claims into one case. As a consequence of liberalized joinder rules, the term joint tortfeasor was soon expanded beyond its previous definition to include individuals whose combined actions had produced injury but who had not acted in conscious concert. Although these "concurrent tortfeasors" could not at common law have been joined in a single action and thus, would not have been subject to the rule of "release one, release all," the linguistic evolution extended the benefits of the rule to such defendants. In many jurisdictions, it was routinely held that a release of one tortfeasor whether joint or concurrent automatically released all despite express reservations to the contrary in the language of the document. See Prosser, Joint Torts and Several Liability, 25 Cal.L.Rev. 413 (1937).

Recent tort law has reacted against the perceived rigidity and inequity of this rule by distinguishing a release from a satisfaction and by liberalizing the doctrine of release. In simplest terms, a satisfaction is an acceptance of full compensation for an injury while a release is a partial abandonment of a cause of action. Although the public policy against double recoveries continues to limit a plaintiff to one satisfaction regardless of which tortfeasor provides it, modern law now generally recognizes that a bargained release of...

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3 cases
  • Smith v. Morbark Industries, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Hampshire
    • April 4, 1990
    ...automatically released all despite express reservations to the contrary in the language of the document. Welsh v. Gerber Products, Inc., 839 F.2d 1035, 1037 (4th Cir.1988). Simply put, if the Vermont joint tortfeasor doctrine controls, Smith has no claim against Morbark; if the law of New H......
  • Levy v. Versar, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois
    • March 30, 1995
    ...settlement, that would not necessarily bar the Plaintiffs from seeking future response damages from Versar. See Welsh v. Gerber Products, Inc., 839 F.2d 1035 (4th Cir.1988). In Welsh, the Court certified a similar question, answered by 315 Md. 510, 555 A.2d 486 (1989), which In simplest ter......
  • National Bank of Washington v. Pearson
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • December 14, 1988
    ...Court of Appeals pursuant to Maryland's certification statute, Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. Sec. 12-601 et seq. See Welsh v. Gerber Products, Inc. 839 F.2d 1035 (4 Cir.1988). Certification would be inappropriate here, however, because Pearson himself removed this case from Maryland state co......
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