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JOHNSON v. MERCEDES-BENZ

January 17, 2002

WILLIAM E. JOHNSON, ET AL. PLAINTIFF,
V.
MERCEDES-BENZ, USA, LLC DEFENDANT, V. KATHERINE ELAYNE SHORT THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kessler, District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff William E. Johnson, suing individually and as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Goldie C. Johnson, brings this survival action against Defendant Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, a Delaware corporation. Plaintiff alleges that a defective airbag in an automobile distributed by Defendant Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC ("Mercedes-Benz") caused the death of Goldie C. Johnson, the wife of Plaintiff William E. Johnson. In response, Mercedes-Benz has brought an action for contribution and indemnification against Third-Party Defendant Katherine Elayne Short ("Short").

Three Motions are pending before the Court: Short's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Short MSJ") [# 63], Mercedes-Benz's First Motion for Partial Summary Judgment ("Def. MSJ I") [# 51], and Mercedes-Benz's Second Motion for Partial Summary Judgment ("Def. MSJ II") [# 60]. Upon consideration of the Motions and all related pleadings, Short's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied in part and granted in part, Mercedes-Benz's First Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is denied, and Mercedes-Benz's Second Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

On November 10, 1997, at approximately 11:45 am, Goldie C. Johnson, who was driving her family's 1989 Mercedes-Benz sedan, stopped at a red light at the intersection of Sixteenth and Aspen Streets NW, in the District of Columbia. See Pl. Compl. ¶ 10. After the sedan had stopped, a car driven by Katherine Short collided from the rear, and caused the sedan to collide with the vehicle in front of it. According to Plaintiff, the sedan's occupant restraint system ("airbag") was activated during the collisions, and caused "blunt force injury to the chest" of Johnson. Id. ¶¶ 13-14, 16.

After being taken to a hospital, Mrs. Johnson was subsequently pronounced dead at 5:36 pm, nearly six hours after the accident. See id. ¶ 15. According to Plaintiff, the cause of death was recorded as "exsanguination, transection of the aorta due to blunt force injury to the chest." Id. ¶ 15.

On May 28, 1998, George Viedma, Short's representative,*fn2 proposed a settlement between Short and Johnson, whereby Short's insurer would pay the Estate of Mrs. Johnson ("the Estate") $20,000 (the insurance policy limit) in exchange for a general release of liability. See Short MSJ, Exh. C (May 28, 1998 letter). On June 10, 1998, Viedma sent the Estate a letter with a general release and a check for $20,000. See Short MSJ, at 14 & Exh. D (June 10, 1998 letter), Exh. E (general release); Pl. Statement of Material Facts ¶ 6. The letter requested that the Estate sign, notarize, and return the general release, and that the Estate "hold payment in escrow pending completion and return of release." Short MSJ, Exh. D (June 10, 1998 letter).*fn3 Thereafter, the Estate did not sign, notarize, and return the general release, and did not cash the check for $20,000.

On June 30, 1998, the Estate mailed a proposed limited release to Viedma. See Pl. Opp. to Short MSJ ¶¶ 6-7. Subsequently, Viedma sent a revised version of the limited release to the Estate.*fn4 This revised limited release included handwritten language requiring that Plaintiff hold Short "harmless . . . for any and all losses incurred, including costs of defense and indemnification." Short MSJ, Exh. G (revised limited release). The revised limited release further stated:

It is Understood and Agreed that [Short], by making payment to the Johnson estate and by agreeing to the contents of this Release is not admitting liability. . . . [Short] denies all liability and intends merely to avoid Litigation.
It is further Understood and Agreed that this Release does not and shall not bar any cause of action, right, lien or claim arising from the said event which any party to this release may now have or may in the future have against any alleged tortfeasor or any entity or person not specifically named herein and released hereby.

Id. (emphasis added).

On July 14, 1998, Plaintiff, as Personal Representative of the Estate, signed and notarized the revised limited release and subsequently mailed it to Viedma. See id.; Pl. Opp. to Short MSJ, at 5. On that same date, the Estate's attorney deposited the $20,000 check in his escrow account. See Pl. Opp. to Short MSJ, Exh. 5 (Crestar Bank deposit slip for $20,000 dated July 14, 1998). On July 24, 1998, Viedma mailed a letter to the Estate which read in pertinent part: "This letter is in respond [sic] to your Settlement Agreement and Release of Claim Agreement. Our Defense Counsel has reviewed your release and insist [sic] on the language in the release. The current Agreement is not acceptable at this time." Short MSJ, Exh. H (July 24, 1998 letter) (emphasis added).

The Estate's attorney spoke with Viedma on July 25, 1998. See Pl. Statement of Material Facts ¶ 10. The Estate's attorney informed Viedma during this conversation that the Estate had accepted and mailed the revised limited release. At this juncture, Viedma instructed the Estate's attorney to disregard his July 24, 1998 letter. See id.*fn5 On that same day, July 25, 1998, the Estate's attorney paid Plaintiff $14,000, which was Plaintiffs share of the $20,000 check. See Pl. Opp. to Short MSJ, Exh. 8, at 1 (Crestar Bank check for $14,000).

Short claims that Viedma subsequently mailed the Estate a letter dated September 30, 1998.*fn6 See Short MSJ, at 7 & Exh. I (Sept. 30, 1998 letter). In pertinent part, the letter stated: "I would like you to be aware that by cashing the settlement check you have accepted the settlement ...


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