Joint Tortfeasors: Scott v. Universal 1

Kopec Law Firm

In this post of the Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog, we will examine joint tortfeasor status. This is an issue that generally arises in the settlement of personal injury cases. The case we will examine is the Appellate Court of Maryland’s unreported opinion in Scott v. Universal Protection Service, LLC (October 20, 2023). Although this is a slip-and-fall premises liability case, the issue can also arise in Maryland medical malpractice cases.

The plaintiff sued four entities in the Circuit Court for Howard County, alleging them to be the owner of the mall where the fall occurred, the manager of the mall, the janitorial contractor, and the security company. (Op. at 1). Afterward, the security company filed a crossclaim against the other three defendants, seeking indemnification and contribution if the jury found it was liable. (Id. at 1-2).

Joint Tortfeasor Settlement Agreement

The plaintiff then entered a joint tortfeasor settlement agreement with the owner, manager, and janitor. The janitor paid $190,000, and the manager and owner together contributed $190,000 for a total of $380,000. (Id. at 2).

The plaintiff and security subsequently went to trial, and the jury returned a verdict of $750,000 in favor of the plaintiff. (Id. at 4).

Joint Tortfeasors
Joint Tortfeasors

The plaintiff asserted three joint tortfeasors, but security argued that there were four. The circuit court held that there were four and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff against security in the amount of $187,500. (Id.).

The number of joint tortfeasors depended on whether the owner and manager were considered one or two. (Id. at 5). The owner and manager agreed to pay $190,000 together, but the settlement agreement did not specify how much each would contribute. The release recited that each releasee was a joint tortfeasor, but also said that the manager and owner would be considered one tortfeasor. The Court interpreted these provisions as meaning that the parties to the release intended the owner to be a separate joint tortfeasor for purposes of contributing to the settlement but not for purposes of security’s contribution. (Id. at 5-6).

Appellate Court

The plaintiff argued that the owner and manager were one tortfeasor because they had a principal/agent relationship, and one party’s liability was derivative of the other’s. The plaintiff added that the two entities had shared one lawyer, filed joint papers, and issued one check for settlement. (Id. at 6).

The Court, however, observed that the plaintiff’s complaint contradicted their argument. The complaint alleged that the owner and manager separately maintained exclusive control over the premises and did not allege any agency relationship. The owner and manager had different duties. The manager was to inform the owner of problems, and the owner was to fix them. (Id. at 7). Despite those parties’ decision to cooperate in their defense, that did not put them into an agency relationship. (Id. at 7-8).

Commentary By the Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyer

The joint tortfeasors issue can arise in Maryland medical malpractice cases whenever there is a partial settlement. For example, a plaintiff may sue a hospital and doctors’ groups. (We usually do not sue a doctor individually if an agency with a corporate defendant is established and there is no issue with insurance.)

A plaintiff’s lawyer should specifically be careful with allegations in a multi-defendant lawsuit and in the release language in a partial settlement. The lawyer should also analyze the relationships between defendants. All of these can affect the determination of joint tortfeasor status. Knowing the number of joint tortfeasors is essential to understanding how the court may reduce any judgment against a non-settling party.

Mark Kopec is a top-rated Baltimore medical malpractice lawyer. Contact us at 800-604-0704 to speak directly with Attorney Kopec in a free consultation. The Kopec Law Firm is in Baltimore and helps clients throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C. Thank you for reading the Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog.

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