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M. Pierre Equipment Company, Inc. v. Griffith Consumers Company

September 18, 2003

M. PIERRE EQUIPMENT COMPANY, INC., APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
GRIFFITH CONSUMERS COMPANY, APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-397-00) (Hon. Steffen W. Graae, Trial Judge)

Before Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges, and Newman, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued September 4, 2003

This case involves an action for contribution by a settling tortfeasor against a non-settling tortfeasor relating to a home basement oil spill. A jury trial resulted in a finding of liability against the non-settling tortfeasor and a jury verdict of $600,000 as a reasonable amount with respect to the settlement with the homeowners. Appellee/cross-appellant Griffith Consumers Company ("Griffith"), the settling tortfeasor, was awarded the pro rata amount of $300,000 against appellant/cross-appellee M. Pierre Equipment Company ("Pierre"), the non-settling tortfeasor. The trial court denied Pierre's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and Griffith's request for prejudgment interest. The parties filed cross appeals concerning the proper legal standard applicable to a contribution action where the plaintiff tortfeasor has settled with the claimant. The cross appeals also raised evidentiary issues pertaining to the measure of damages, and challenged the trial court's decisions on Pierre's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and Griffith's request for prejudgment interest.

We affirm the judgment of the trial court, and hold that in a contribution action by a settling tortfeasor against a non-settling tortfeasor, the settling tortfeasor has the burden of establishing common liability and the reasonableness of the settlement. We also conclude that the trial court exercised proper discretion in making decisions about the measure of damages; and that it committed no error in denying Pierre's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and Griffith's request for prejudgment interest.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

In September 1995, William and Miriam Galston executed a contract with Pierre for the installation of a new heating system in their home, located on Jenifer Street in the Northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia. Under the contract, the heating system was converted from oil to natural gas. Pierre did not "remove, disable or cap the intake piping of the home heating oil system." Moreover, when it performed the contract work, Pierre did not have certain permits required by the District, including master plumbing, gasfitting, and electrical permits.

Around January 1997, Griffith was scheduled to deliver oil to a home on Jocelyn Street, N.W. Instead of going to the proper Jocelyn Street address, Griffith delivered the oil to the home of the Galstons through a pipe that had not been removed, or disabled, or capped. Extensive damage was done to the home and the Galstons w ere forced to move out of their home due to the need for remediation.

Griffith negotiated a settlement with the Galstons in the amount of $850,000. The Galstons then assigned their rights against Pierre to Griffith, and Griffith filed a lawsuit against Pierre to recover one-half of the $850,000 settlement sum. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury was instructed to return answers to specific questions posed on a jury verdict form. The jury decided that Pierre was "negligent in its handling of the fill and vent pipes . . . [at the Galstons' home] and that such negligence was a proximate cause of the basement oil spill. . . ." The jury also found that the Galstons were not contributorily negligent. In addition, the jury determined that Griffith's $850,000 settlement with the Galstons was not reasonable, and that $600,000 "would have been a reasonable settlement with the Galstons for their d amages."

ANALYSIS

Pierre contends that "the general method upon which the trial court allowed Griffith to proceed was fundamentally flawed." Specifically, Pierre claims that the trial court erred by "instruct[ing] the jury to determine whether the [$850.000] was a reasonable settlement." It argues that the trial court should have followed a traditional damages procedure, requiring proof of the specific damages the Galstons could have recovered against Pierre. Griffith maintains, by contrast, that "the courts and commentators have uniformly long held that where a settling tortfeasor sues a non-settling tortfeasor for contribution, the settlement amount is the proper basis for damages as long as the settlement amount is re asonable."

The contribution issues in this case pose questions of mixed fact and law. We review the legal issues de novo, and like the trial court, we are "bound by the jury's factual findings, unless [the trial court] has granted an appropriate and timely post-trial motion which in effect sets aside the jury's verdict." Hubbard v. Chidel, 790 A.2d 558, 567 (D.C. 2002) (citing Jones v. Schramm, 141 U.S. App. D.C. 169, 172-73 n.11, 436 F.2d 899, 902 (1970)). Under our precedents, "it is now well settled that there is a right of equal contribution among joint tortfeasors." *fn1 District of Columbia v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 722 A.2d 332, 336 (D.C. 1998) (en banc). "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.'" Id. (citing Martello v. Hawley, 112 U.S. App. D.C. 129, 131, 300 F.2d 721, 723 (1962) (other citations omitted)).

Although Pierre finds fault with the trial court's approach to Griffith's contribution action in this matter of first impression in the District, it cites no jurisdiction which follows a procedure different from that used in this case. Many jurisdictions have enacted statutes concerning contribution, some of which have adopted or modified the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act ("UCATA"). *fn2 Contrary to the thrust of Pierre's argument, § 2 of the UCATA eliminates the notion of comparative negligence in a contribution action: "In determining the pro rata shares of tortfeasors in the entire liability. . . their relative degree of fault shall not be c onsidered."

Some jurisdictions impose two requirements in a contribution action brought against a non-settling tortfeasor by a tortfeasor w ho has settled with the claimant: common liability and the reasonableness of the settlement. As the court said in Automobile Underwriters Corp. v. Harrelson, 409 N.W.2d 688 (Iowa 1987): "In a contribution action by a settling tortfeasor against a non-settling tortfeasor, plaintiff has the burden of proving common liability with the defendant to the injured person and the reasonableness of the settlement negotiated with the injured person by the claimant tortfeasor." Id. at 690 (citations omitted). See also Transport Ins. Co. v. Chrysler Corp., 71 F.3d 720, 722 (8th Cir. 1995) ("Contribution is available to a settling tortfeasor if the amount paid in settlement is reasonable."); Travelers Ins. Co. v. United States, 283 F. Supp. 14, 31 (S.D. Tex. 1968) ("[I]n a suit for contribution the alleged joint tortfeasor has the ...


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