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Joint and Several Liability and One Satisfaction Rule

February 21, 2017 By Karen M. Wagner

So, you are a Co-Defendant in a case and a verdict was just returned in favor of Plaintiff and against all Defendants jointly and severally. What does that mean for you?

The concept of a “joint tortfeasor” is derived from the notion that a single injury can result from the joint actions of two or more individuals, who, putting aside defenses, may be jointly and severally liable. W. Page Keeton, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 41.

Under the common law, an injured party could pursue any or all of the joint tortfeasors to recover damages. The right of contribution among joint tortfeasors, such that the one who paid the damages caused by several would be able to spread the loss among the group of tortfeasors, was prohibited.

In 1941, the General Assembly adopted the Maryland Uniform Contribution Among Joint Tort-feasors Act, modeled on the national paradigm. Currently codified as Sections 3-1401 to 3-1409 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, the Act defines joint tort-feasors as “two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to person or property, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or some of them. Section 3-1401(c). This does not mean that a plaintiff to whom two different defendants are jointly and severally liable for a single judgment can collect in full from each defendant. Rather, the plaintiff can collect the full amount from each defendant only once, either from one defendant, or the other, or in part in from both.

This rule is enumerated in Underwood-Gary v. Mathews, 366 Md. 660; 785 A.2d 708 (2001). In Underwood-Gary, a jury awarded $9,087.00 to an injured party in their suit against a negligent driver. The case settled for the policy limits of $20,000.00. Plaintiff argued that she sustained serious, painful, and permanent injuries throughout her entire body and she has in the past and will in the future be required to expend large sums of money for hospital, rehabilitation, medical and nursing care related to this accident. Id. at 664. Within a week of this settlement, the injured party filed a second suit against the doctors who operated on her and provided care to her associated with the accident in the first law suit. The Court of Appeals found that the injured party sought to recover the same post-surgery medical expenses that she presented to the jury in the first case, including doctors’ medical bills, hospital bills, and other bills. In her first law suit, she argued that the surgery performed on her was necessary and went as far as to call two of her doctors as witnesses to testify on her behalf as to the necessity of the surgery performed and associated with the injuries she suffered as a result of the accident. Id. at 663. In her second lawsuit, she argued that the surgery performed was unnecessary and did not have to happen.  She sought recovery for the same pain and suffering, and in both cases she presented evidence of her 50-year life expectancy and requested the jury to compensate her for future pain and physical limitations; because after her surgery she was approximately 30% permanently disabled. There were no separate damages to be recovered in the second action against the doctors. Id. at 712.

The court found that an original tortfeasor is liable for harm done to a plaintiff, including additional harm caused by a treating physician’s improper diagnosis and unnecessary surgery. This rule is based on the premise that the negligent actor, by his conduct, has placed the plaintiff in a position of danger and should answer for the risks inherent in treatment and rendering aid. Id. at 713. Thus while multiple tortfeasors may be jointly and severally liable for the same injury, when payment of judgment in full is made by one tortfeasor, there is no doubt that the Plaintiff is barred from a further action against another who is liable for the same damages.

In Underwood-Gary, the Plaintiff was barred from receiving double recovery for the same harm. A plaintiff is entitled to one compensation for his or her loss and the full satisfaction of Plaintiff’s claim in her first lawsuit prevented her from receiving further compensation for the same harm. While this principle appears to be straightforward, its application has led to much confusion in the legal system.