Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On double recovery

The upcoming investiture of Judge Teresa Chafin to the Virginia Court of Appeals makes me think about what a pleasure but also a challenge it must be for her to join a court with the likes of Chief Judge Felton, Judge Humphreys, Judge Kelsey, and Senior Judges Baumgardner and Annunziata.

Also, it makes me think of a case she decided once where the issue was the extent to which, if any, the settlement between a truck owner and the repair shop over a claim related to the repair of an engine would bar the truck owner's recovery from the manufacturer for breach of warranty, where the manufacturer claimed the injury and damages for both claims were the same - a bad engine.

So, the manufacturer argued that the settlement with the repair shop gave the truck owner a single satisfaction and the owner was not entitled to a double recovery, citing Nizan v. Wells Fargo. In Cauthorn v. British Leyland, U.K., Ltd., 233 Va. 202, 355 S.E.2d 306 (1987), the Supreme Court held that “where there is one indivisible injury, as here, for which settlement has been consummated, unconditional release of one allegedly liable for the injury bars recovery against others also allegedly liable, regardless of the theory upon which liability is predicated.” 233 Va. at 207, 355 S.E.2d at 309. The same rule was applied in Cox v. Geary, 271 Va. 141, 624 S.E.2d 16 (2006), in an opinion by Justice Kinser. The point of both cases was that where the relief sought from the multiple defendants is identical, one satisfaction is all the plaintiff can have, regardless of the different legal theories of liability. In Virginia, “a party with two valid causes of action is entitled to ‘seek compensation in each, [but is], nonetheless, estopped from collecting the full amount [of damages] in the second action if they were partially paid therefor in the first.’” Nizan v. Wells Fargo Bank Minnesota National Association, 274 Va. 481, 491, 650 S.E.2d 497, 502 (2007) (quoting Katzenberger v. Bryan, 206 Va. 78, 85, 141 S.E.2d 671, 676 (1965)). “Katzenberger establishes that what is dispositive to a defense of double recovery is whether the damages claimed, on whatever theory of liability, are the same damages. If the element of damages is the same, it makes no difference that the potential payors are not joint tortfeasors or jointly and severally liable under the same theory of liability.” Nizan, 274 Va. at 499, 650 S.E.2d at 506.

Judge Chafin thought this was interesting but too clever, to argue that the settlement with the one defendant had released the other outright. She noted the 2007 amendment to Va. Code 8.01-35.1, which changed the language of the section from "persons liable in tort for the same injury" to "persons liable for the same injury." She held that consistent with that statute, the first settlement did not discharge the second claim, but the amount that could be recovered from the manufacturer would be reduced by the amount of the first settlement. It was a pretty good opinion, I thought, and impressed me quite a bit.

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