Presentation on theme: "APPORTIONMENT OF LIABILITY PRACTICAL IMPACT OF DEBENEDETTO ON MULTI-PARTY LITIGATION."— Presentation transcript:
APPORTIONMENT OF LIABILITY PRACTICAL IMPACT OF DEBENEDETTO ON MULTI-PARTY LITIGATION
PRESENTED BY: Getman, Schulthess & Steere, P.A.
HISTORY OF APPORTIONMENT Based on RSA 507:7-e Purpose is to protect deep pocket minimally liable defendants from bearing a disproportionate share of damages awards
RSA 507:7-e Jury awards damages against each defendant according to proportionate fault of each of the parties Each party is jointly & severally liable if 50% or more at fault Each party is severally liable for only its proportionate share if less than 50% at fault
NILSSON CASE Nilsson v. Bierman, 150 N.H. 393 (2003) For purposes of apportionment under RSA 507:7-e the word party refers to all persons or entities who take part in an accident or transaction Party includes settling parties
DeBENEDETTO CASE DeBenedetto v. CLD Consulting Engineers, Inc., 153 N.H. 793 (2006) Party for purposes of apportionment under RSA 507:7-e includes all parties contributing to an occurrence Includes persons/entities immune from liability Includes persons/entities not otherwise before the court
TIBERGHEIN CASE Tiberghein v. B.R. Jones Roofing, 156 N.H. 110 (2007) RSA 507:7-e apportionment also applies to arbitration awards
BURDEN OF PROOF Burden of establishing fault on the part of a non-litigant tortfeasor lies with the litigant defendants in the case Everitt v. General Electric, 156 N.H. 202 (2007)
ADEQUATE EVIDENCE Allegations against non-litigant tortfeasors must be supported with adequate evidence DeBenedetto v. CLD Consulting Engineers Conduct discovery to obtain facts supporting non-litigant tortfeasors fault Defendant seeking apportionment is in position analogous to that of plaintiff
EXPERT TESTIMONY Expert opinion testimony is required to establish non-litigant tortfeasors fault in: 1) professional liability cases Goudreault v. Kleeman,158 N.H. 236 (2009) 2) any case which would ordinarily require expert testimony
PRE-TRIAL SETTLEMENT BY PARTY DEFENDANT A settling party cannot be compelled to litigate fault Everitt v. General Electric
SUPERIOR COURT ORDERS Since Nilsson & DeBenedetto, trial courts have attempted to predict how the Supreme Court would apply non-party apportionment in a variety of circumstances
BOISVERT v. GINSBERG Plaintiff brought negligence action for injuries resulting from spinal surgery Principal doctor/tortfeasor settled before trial Remaining defendants sought disclosure of terms of settlement in order to assess exposure & analyze contribution issues (cont.)
BOISVERT v. GINSBERT (cont.) Court (J. Mangones) held: 1. Defendant not entitled to settlement information – evidence of settlement is barred under RSA 507:7-I 2. Settlement is irrelevant until jury reaches verdict and apportions damages 3. Court only required in camera review of settlement terms
WATSON v. ELITE LIFESTYLES Plaintiffs sued defendants claiming poor construction of addition to their home Two of the defendants defaulted Court would not apportion liability to defaulted defendants until after trial of case against remaining defendants (cont.)
WATSON v. ELITE LIFESTYLES (cont.) Court (J. Mohl) held: 1. Evidence of default judgment would be admitted at trial (to help jury understand role of each entity in the construction) 2. The amount of damages awarded against defaulted defendants was not admissible (it would mislead the jury as to their function in assessing damages)
PETRUCELLI v. STEPHEN DABROSCA, et al Dispute between former business partners concerning formation, operation, sale and winding up of car dealership Plaintiff sued former owner, the business entity, and its law firm Plaintiff settled with the law firm before trial Defendant sought apportionment of liability to law firm and two other non-parties
PETRUCELLI v. DABROCSA, et al (cont.) Court denied apportionment due to inadequate evidence and lack of expert evidence as to law firm Jury awarded over $2M – 80% of fault was apportioned to the former partner
RUEL v. NORTH AMERICAN AMUSEMENT Minor child injured in moon bounce carnival ride One defendant sought apportionment against childs father Plaintiff sought to exclude evidence against father due to defendants failure to adequately answer interrogatories pertaining to father (cont.)
RUEL v. NORTH AMERICAN AMUSEMENT (cont.) Court (J. Wageling) ruled: 1. Defendant could seek apportionment against father as long as it submitted adequate evidence at trial 2. Plaintiff could reference any deficiency in evidence presented
RALLIS v. GLADSTONE Court (J. McHugh) held: 1. If a non-settling defendant plans to argue for apportioning fault to a settling party, it should be required to specify its reasons in its DeBenedetto disclosure 2. Adequate disclosure may assist plaintiff in determining whether to settle with any defendant prior to trial
COLMAN v. SIPKEMA Plaintiff and defendant involved in car accident Defendant sought to apportion liability against third, unknown driver Details pertaining to the unidentified car came from plaintiff and were sketchy (cont.)
COLMAN v. SIPKEMA (cont.) Court (J. McHugh) held: 1. Defendant could not seek apportionment to the unidentified driver due to insufficient evidence & speculative nature of claim 2. Defendant would be permitted to introduce the evidence only in order to establish comparative fault on the part of plaintiff
RAY v. GEICO Plaintiffs vehicle hit by uninsured driver Plaintiff brings UM claim Evidence showed that unidentified third driver may have contributed to accident UM insurer sought apportionment as to hit & run driver – stands in the shoes of the uninsured motorist and entitled to assert same defenses (cont.)
RAY v. GEICO Plaintiff objected claiming: 1) purpose of UM statute is to fully compensate parties injured by uninsured drivers; 2) apportionment doesnt apply in UM case; 3) UM insurer must compensate for harm caused by ALL liable uninsured drivers Court Held: Insurer may seek apportionment of liability to unidentified driver if it can support the claim with adequate evidence
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS In deciding whether to pursue apportionment against non-party tortfeasor a defendant must weigh … Cost of litigatingv.Likelihood of fault of nonpartysuccess & percentage fault of non-litigant
ADEQUACY OF DISCLOSURE Intent to apportion liability against non-litigant must be disclosed in advance Strictly adhere to language of disclosure requirement in structuring conference order Identify all parties as potential DeBenedetto defendants (including non-party tortfeasors, immune tortfeasors, settling defendants, co- defendants and phantom defendants)
TIMING OF DISCLOSURE Include broad disclosure language in Brief Statement File Notice of Intent to apportion to specific tortfeasors within deadline provided for in Structuring Conference Order
FORM OF DISCLOSURE BRIEF STATEMENT Sample disclosure language for Brief Statement: The defendant reserves the right to request that the jury or Court find fault against any and all potential joint tortfeasors regardless of whether they have been sued by the plaintiffs or any other party, whether they have settled their claims prior to trial, or whether they are protected from suit by any immunity or other legal bar to bringing such an action..
FORM OF DISCLOSURE NOTICE OF INTENT Structuring Conference Order Form currently requires: If defendant claims that unnamed parties are at fault (see DeBenedetto), defendant shall disclose the identity of every such party and the basis of the allegation of fault no later than…
NOTICE OF INTENT TO APPORTION LIABILITY Must specifically identify all persons or entities to which apportionment may be sought Should set forth the factual and legal basis for apportionment of liability to each such person or entity
EXPANSION OF DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENT? Plaintiff attorneys are lobbying to modify structuring conference language May require identification of co-defendants as DeBenedetto parties for purposes of apportionment Failure to disclose co-defendants who later settle could preclude apportionment May require disclosure of witnesses, including experts, to support apportionment as to that party
PROPOSED LEGISLATION HB 1255 (introduced in 2010 session) Would have amended RSA 507:7-e to prohibit apportionment claims against any person/entity immune from liability unless that person/entity is made a party to the action under Superior Court Rule 27 Bill deemed inexpedient to legislate by Judiciary Committee
SEVIGNY v. QUESADA Parties amended Structuring Conference Order Form to state: Pursuant to DeBenedetto v. CLD case, defendants shall disclose by the identity of every person or party alleged to be at fault and the basis therefore.
SEVIGNY (cont.) None of the defendants disclosed intent to apportion liability prior to deadline Plaintiff settled with one defendant Plaintiff withdrew medical experts they planned to support claims against the settling defendant Remaining defendant sought to videotape testimony of plaintiffs withdrawn experts
SEVIGNY (cont.) Trial Court ruled: Structuring Conference Order required disclosure of all persons alleged to be at fault, even if they were parties to the litigation Defendant could not compel testimony from plaintiffs withdrawn experts Defendant was barred from seeking to apportion liability to any other person at trial
DISCLOSURE OF EVIDENCE SUPPORTING APPORTIONMENT Plaintiffs have successfully amended Structuring Conference Order Forms to require disclosure, by a fixed date, of: The identity of every person or party alleged to be at fault The specific bases for the allegation of fault The witnesses defendant intends to call to establish fault, including experts
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS Requires defendant to prepare case against co-defendant as well as its own defense Deters cooperation among co-defendants Results in additional expense by requiring discovery and experts as to co-defendant Defendant cannot rely on plaintiffs evidence and witnesses against co-defendant Requires strict adherence to disclosure date
CASE STUDIES Few cases have reached Supreme Court, so attorneys and trial courts in unchartered waters Advantages of utilizing apportionment must be assessed on a case by case basis
CASE #1 Customer injured in slip & fall on commercial property Suit filed against property owner & plumbing contractor Property owner likely 50% at fault & contractor likely < 50% at fault Property owner settles & potential verdict likely higher than amount paid in settlement DeBenedetto instruction beneficial: 1) if contractor < 50% at fault it pays only its proportionate share; 2) if found 50% at fault, liable for 100% but gets offset for amount paid by settling property owner
CASE #1 - ILLUSTRATION Property owner settles for $40k prior to trial Case goes to trial against plumbing contractor and contractor seeks apportionment to property owner Jury reaches verdict of $100k 1) contractor found 30% at fault – pays $30k 2) contractor found 50% at fault – pays $60k
CASE #2 Employee of subcontractor (SC) injured in construction accident Defendant general contractor (GC) minimally at fault SC primarily at fault, but immune due to WC bar SC contractually obligated to defend & indemnify GC GC brings third party action v. SC SC assumes defense of GC & seeks apportionment of fault to SC GC withdraws third party action
CASE #3 Plaintiff injured due to alleged product defect & sues multiple defendants Primary manufacturer seeks apportionment as to remaining defendants and non-party component manufacturers Primary manufacturer found 50% at fault
CASE #3 - ILLUSTRATION Jury awards verdict of $100k 70% apportioned to primary manufacturer 20% apportioned to co-defendants 10% apportioned to non-party component manufacturers Primary manufacturer pays 80% but can seek contribution from non-parties
CASE #4 Plaintiff injured while a passenger in vehicle operated by spouse (Operator #1) and struck by a second vehicle (Operator #2) Operator #2 is clearly 50% at fault Operator #1 settles claim for less than his proportionate share Operator #2 is jointly & severally liable, so liable for 100% of verdict with offset for amount of settlement with Operator #1 DeBenedetto apportionment neutral
CASE #4 - ILLUSTRATION Operator #1 settles for $20k Trial proceeds against Operator #2 who seeks apportionment to Operator #1 Jury awards verdict of $100k Operator #2 found to be 70% at fault, Operator #1 30% at fault Operator #2 pays $80k ($100k less offset of $20k)
CASE #5 Construction accident with both GC and immune employer/subcontractor at fault If GC is 50% liable, DeBenedetto apportionment neutral since GC has joint & several liability If GC < 50% liable, apportionment beneficial since it pays only its proportionate share
CASE #5 - ILLUSTRATION Jury awards verdict of $100k If GC is 60% liable and SC 40%, GC still pays $100 due to joint & several liability If GC is 40% liable and SC is 60% liable, GC pays only $40k – apportionment beneficial to GC and plaintiff bears the loss
CASE #6 Plaintiff injured in automobile accident when struck by Vehicle #1 Operator of Vehicle #1 claims that he swerved to avoid unidentified operator of Vehicle #2 who failed to yield right-of-way Can Operator of Vehicle #1 seek apportionment of liability to phantom driver?
CASE #7 Plaintiff injured due to negligence of two defendants and extent to which each is liable is not clear One defendant settles for substantial amount Trial proceeds against remaining defendant and jury apportions liability to settling defendant for less than amount it paid Remaining defendant is found 50% at fault Does remaining defendant receive full offset?
CASE #7 - ILLUSTRATION Operator #1 settles for $80k prior to trial Trial proceeds against Operator #2 Operator #2 is found 70% at fault, Operator #1 is assigned 30% Jury awards verdict of $100k Operator #2 pays…?
CASE #8 Plaintiff settles with Defendant #1 Trial proceeds against Defendant #2 Defendant #2 found < 50% at fault after seeking apportionment to Defendant #1 Amount of liability apportioned to Defendant #1 is less than amount it paid Who gets windfall?
CASE #8 - ILLUSTRATION Defendant #1 settles for $80k prior to trial Trial proceeds against Defendant #2 Jury awards verdict of $100k Apportionment of liability is 30% to Defendant #2 and 70% to Defendant #1 Defendant #2 pays…?
Unsettled Questions… Applicability of DeBenedetto apportionment in underinsured motorist cases Applicability of DeBenedetto in breach of contract cases