Williams v. Physicians and Surgeons Community Hosp., Inc.

Decision Date30 June 1982
Docket NumberNo. 38335,38335
Citation292 S.E.2d 705,249 Ga. 588
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Jerry B. Hatcher, Hatcher, Dorsey, Irvin & Pressley, Atlanta, for Sarah Francis Williams.

David M. Brown, William W. Gardner, Atlanta, for Physicians and Surgeons Community Hosp., Inc.

SMITH, Justice.

We granted certiorari to consider the extent to which a general release executed in settlement of a pending lawsuit against an original tortfeasor inures to the benefit of a successive tortfeasor. The Court of Appeals held that under our case of Maxey v. Hospital Authority, 245 Ga. 480, 265 S.E.2d 779 (1980), the claim of appellant, Sarah Williams, against appellee, Physicians and Surgeons Hospital, is barred. We reverse.

On August 2, 1976, Mrs. Williams sustained foot injuries when her automobile was struck by a car driven by Earline B. Anthony. Some fifteen months later, while a suit against Mrs. Anthony was pending, Mrs. Williams entered Physicians and Surgeons Hospital for treatment of nagging pain and swelling connected with the accident. Soon afterwards, appellant settled her claim against Mrs. Anthony, executing a general release in favor of the tortfeasor, her insurance company, and "all other persons, firms, and corporations" (emphasis supplied). The release signed by Mrs. Williams was a standard, preprinted form with blank spaces in which the parties to the release inserted their names, the date of the accident, a brief description of the accident, and the amount of the settlement. The release did not mention appellee Physicians and Surgeons Community Hospital.

Following execution of the release, Mrs. Williams sued the hospital, claiming that her foot was injured as a result of infection due to appellee's negligent treatment of her injuries. The hospital moved for summary judgment on the ground that the general release in favor of Mrs. Anthony, the original tortfeasor, operated as a bar to any subsequent suit against the hospital for aggravation of Mrs. Williams' injuries. The trial court denied the motion.

The Court of Appeals granted an interlocutory appeal and reversed. Physicians and Surgeons Community Hospital, Inc. v. Williams, 160 Ga.App. 243, 286 S.E.2d 751 (1981). The court emphasized that, under our decision in Maxey v. Hospital Authority, supra, it was bound by the "clear and unambiguous" language of the document releasing "all persons," including the hospital, from liability. We reverse.

A general release is "one that releases the alleged tortfeasor from liability for all claims arising out of an occurrence ..." Glover v. Sou. Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co., 229 Ga. 874, 875, 195 S.E.2d 11 (1972). In Knight v. Lowery, 228 Ga. 452, 185 S.E.2d 915 (1971), this court for the first time held that a release of one tort-feasor was not effective as a release of a successive tort-feasor unless (a) all damages, including those caused by the successive tortfeasor, are paid in full, or (b) the parties to the release intended to release both tortfeasors. 1 Id. at 456, 185 S.E.2d 915. This position was reaffirmed in Maxey v. Hospital Authority, supra. The release in Maxey, however, was held to be "clear and unambiguous" in its application to "all the world," including the alleged successive tortfeasor; and Knight v. Lowery was overruled to the extent that it held that parol evidence is always admissible against a stranger to the release "to ascertain the true intention of the parties with regard to those persons who were to be bound or covered by the release." 228 Ga. at 457, 185 S.E.2d 915.

We are in full accord with the rule established in Knight v. Lowery that release of one tortfeasor releases a successive tortfeasor only if the parties to the release intended to release both tortfeasors. Our decision there was but a specific application of the broader principle that "... a plaintiff should never be compelled to surrender his cause of action against any wrongdoer unless he has intentionally done so, or unless he has received such full compensation that he is no longer entitled to maintain it." Prosser, Handbook of the Law of Torts 304 (4th ed. 1971). This rule has particular force in a successive tortfeasor case such as this one. Here the defendant hospital claims immunity from liability under the release; but the hospital was not a party to the release, did not contribute to the settlement of the original claim, and did not rely on the terms of the release. See Couillard v. Charles T. Miller Hospital, Inc., 253 Minn. 418, 92 N.W.2d 96 (1958), Scheideler v. Elias, 209 Neb. 601, 309 N.W.2d 67 (1981); Dailey v. Somberg, 28 N.J. 372, 146 A.2d 676 (1958); Thornton v. Charleston Area Medical Center, 213 S.E.2d 102 (W.Va.Sup.Ct.1975).

The central rationale of the many decisions, including Knight v. Lowery, which have adopted the so-called "modern rule" regarding the effect of a release on the liability of a successive tortfeasor is that courts should look to the real intention of the parties to a general release rather than relying on an aritficial conclusive presumption of law based on general, boilerplate language contained in the release. See Annot., 39 A.L.R.3d 260, 281-83 (1971). Consequently, all courts which have adopted the modern view allow the parties to the release to introduce parol evidence of their intent at the time of execution of the release. Id. 2

Georgia is the lone exception. Because of our decision in Maxey v. Hospital Authority, supra, a plaintiff who executes a general release to an original tortfeasor then sues the treating physician or hospital for aggravation of the preexisting injuries is bound by the language, however general, of the release. We can no longer adhere to this harsh rule.

We therefore hold that, where a non-party to a general release claims coverage thereunder, parol evidence is admissible as an aid in explaining the intention of the parties to the release. This result is, we believe, more consistent with the usual intentions and expections of the parties to a general release. Normally, negotiation and settlement of a tort claim will focus on the accident from which the claim arises. Little, if any, thought is give to later events such as possible aggravation of the original injury by a third-party tortfeasor. This is particularly true where the aggravating event occurs months, or even years, after the original accident. The facts of this case provide a ready illustration. We think it extremely unlikely that when she executed a release to Mrs. Anthony and "all other persons," Mrs. Williams intended to release a hospital whose treatment aggravated her foot injury nearly fifteen months after the automobile accident. Perhaps she did; our only point is that the parties should be allowed to present proof outside of the document itself on this vital question of intent.

The form of the usual release document itself supports such an interpretation. The release executed by Mrs. Williams was on a standard, preprinted form which the parties completed by filling in the date and time of the accident in question. In an analogous area, this court has held that where a contract is partly printed and partly handwritten or typed, the written or typed portions are to be given greater weight in construing the parties' intent. Stanley v. Greenfield, 207 Ga. 390, 61 S.E.2d 818 (1950); Shackelford v. Fitzgerald, 151 Ga. 35, 39, 105 S.E. 597 (1920). See also McDaniel v. Georgia Consolidated Contracting Co., 110 F.Supp. 751 (S.D.Ga.1952.) (applying Georgia law). The content of the typed portions of the release in this case indicate that the parties to the release were primarily concerned with the original accident, not a subsequent aggravation of the plaintiff's injuries by one not a party to the release.

Furthermore, we believe that a rule requiring strict adherence to the terms of a preprinted release form is unfair to laymen who may be unknowledgeable or not represented by an attorney during negotiation and execution of the release. By absolutely freeing potential successive tortfeasors from liability, such a rule may unjustly benefit parties who have caused severe injury through unskilled medical treatment or negligent hospital care. See Thornton v. Charleston Area Medical Center, supra, at 108.

For these reasons, we think that a successive tortfeasor who is not named in a general release should not be allowed to insulate himself from liability merely by invoking the words "all other persons" or similar general language contained in the release. Parol evidence is therefore admissible "to ascertain the true intention of the parties [to the release] with regard to those persons who were to be bound or covered by the release." Knight v. Lowery, supra, 288 Ga. at 457, 185 S.E.2d 915. Our...

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