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DISTRICT OF COL. v. WASH. HOSP. CENTER

December 30, 1998

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT,
V.
WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CENTER, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, EVELYN E. C. QUEEN, J. [722 A2d Page 333]

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, Terry, Steadman, Schwelb, Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges, and Gallagher, and KING,[fn*] Senior Judges. [fn*] Judge King was an Associate Judge of the court at the time of argument. His status changed to Senior Judge on November 23, 1998.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner, Chief Judge:

[722 A2d Page 334]

The principal issue raised by this appeal is whether a settling defendant in an automobile negligence case has a right to equitable contribution or indemnity from a non-party hospital which allegedly aggravated plaintiffs initial injuries where the settling party obtained a release from the injured party only for itself, its officers, agents and employees. We conclude that there is no right of contribution or indemnity in favor of the settling party under the circumstances presented in this case.

I.

Factual and Procedural Background

Shiela Bringier, while carrying her three year old child across the street, was struck by an automobile involved in a high speed chase with a Metropolitan Police officer. Ms. Bringier, individually and on behalf of her minor child (the Bringiers), filed a suit for damages for personal injuries against the District of Columbia (District) alleging that the accident was proximately caused by the negligence of the police officer. *fn1 Prior to trial, the District settled the lawsuit with the Bringiers with the entry of a consent judgment, under the terms of which the Bringiers released the District from all claims arising out of the incident that were the subject of the lawsuit, including any claims for contribution or indemnity that third parties might have against the District. Appellee, the Washington Hospital Center (WHC or the Hospital), was not a party to the Bringier action.

Subsequently, the District filed this action against WHC for all or a contributable portion of the settlement, alleging that the hospital's medical negligence exacerbated the injuries that Ms. Bringier sustained in the accident and that its settlement of the lawsuit covered that portion of Ms. Bringier's claim. WHC moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. Rules 12(c) and 56, attaching as exhibits to its motion copies of the complaint, the consent motion for judgment and the consent judgment from the Bringier action. *fn2

Relying primarily on this court's decision in Hall v. George A. Fuller Co., 621 A.2d 848 (D.C. 1993), WHC argued in its motion that contribution is available only among joint tortfeasors and that the District, by settling the claim, had made impossible the determination of joint or any other liability. In its opposition, the District sought to distinguish Hall in at least two ways. First, it pointed out that in Hall, each of the cross-claiming co-defendants had settled and bought his peace from plaintiff, while the District allegedly bought the peace of WHC, in addition to its own, in the Bringier action. Second, it contended that unlike the injuries sustained by the victim in Hall, the injury caused by WHC's medical negligence was separate and distinct from the injury that Ms. Bringier sustained in the automobile accident, and therefore, the District's liability in the Bringier action would not determine or affect WHC's liability for medical negligence. The trial court granted WHC's motion to dismiss without opinion, indicating that it had considered the motion and the District's opposition thereto.

On appeal, the District argued before the division that the trial court erred in dismissing its action for contribution because its settlement covered the entire liability, and WHC's negligence caused a substantial portion of the damages covered by the settlement of the Bringier case. WHC challenged [722 A2d Page 336]

the District's contentions that it had paid the entire liability and settled any claim that Ms. Bringier might have had against the hospital. WHC also contended that the District's settlement of the Bringier claim extinguished any right it might have for equitable contribution. The division majority held that the release obtained by the District in the Bringier case did not discharge any liability that WHC might have to the Bringiers, and therefore, the District had no cause of action for contribution against WHC. Further, relying on Hall, supra, and principles underlying this jurisdiction's contribution scheme, the division majority also concluded, under the particular facts, that the District "extinguished the liability upon which equitable contribution is based and that it is not entitled equitably to contribution from WHC to reduce the amount it paid in settlement of the claim against it." Acknowledging the support for the decision found in Hall for the latter proposition, but apparent inconsistencies with some other cases in this jurisdiction, the District petitioned for reheating en banc, which we granted.

II.

The District argues that it is entitled to contribution from WHC toward the amount of the settlement of the lawsuit with Ms. Bringier because it discharged the entire liability, including WHC's liability for alleged negligent medical treatment which aggravated the initial injuries Ms. Bringier sustained in the automobile accident with the District's agent. It is the District's theory that it should be considered a joint tortfeasor with WHC, and therefore entitled to equitable contribution for that portion of the settlement payment in excess of its fair share of the common liability. We consider first whether a right of contribution exists in the circumstances outlined.

A. Contribution

Contribution is one of several theories used to apportion damages among tortfeasors to an injured party. In this jurisdiction, the law pertaining to the right of contribution among joint tortfeasors has been established by case precedent rather than by statute. Lamphier v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 524 A.2d 729, 733 (D.C. 1987). Under these precedents, it is now well settled that there is a right of equal contribution among joint tortfeasors. *fn3 Hall, supra, 621 A.2d at 850; Early Settlers Ins. Co. v. Schweid, 221 A.2d 920, 923 (D.C. 1966). The philosophy behind the allowance of contribution is that "as each tort-feasor was at fault in bringing about the injury to the innocent party, then in justice each tort-feasor should share his part in the burden of making the injured party whole again." Martello v. Hawley, 112 U.S.App. D.C. 129, 131, 300 F.2d 721, 723 (1962) (citing George's Radio, Inc. v. Capital Transit Co., 75 U.S.App. D.C. 187, 126 F.2d 219 (1942)). The contribution remedy is a way of securing "fairness to joint tortfeasors (by distributing the plaintiff's losses equitably among all wrongdoers) and deterrence (by ensuring that all parties responsible for the injuries will share in the cost of the offending conduct)." Hall, 621 A.2d at 850 n. 3 (citation omitted). Since we have not recognized degrees of negligence in ...


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