E-Alert Case Updates
General Release for accident tortfeasor releases product liability claims against manufacturer.
Berhane, et al. v. Allstate Insurance Company, et al.
Plaintiff, Berenesh Berhane, was involved in a motor vehicle accident with Damun Walling. The Plaintiff brought suit against Walling, Berhane’s uninsured motorist insurance carrier, Allstate Insurance Company (“Allstate”), and Nissan North America, Inc. (“NNA”). Berhane alleged that Walling caused the accident, but the Nissan Pathfinder that she was operating was negligently designed and manufactured, and that those defects contributed to her injuries. During the course of the litigation, Berhane and Walling settled their claims, and Berhane executed a general release required by Walling’s liability insurer (“Release”). Thereafter, NNA removed the matter from Prince George’s County Circuit Court to the Federal Court, and then moved for summary judgment as to the product liability claims against it, based on the language of the Release.
The Federal District Court observed that under Maryland law, “a general release of one tortfeasor which releases ‘all other persons’ acts to release all joint tortfeasors, whether or not such a tortfeasor was a party to the release or was specifically mentioned in the release.” The Court noted that the Release by its explicit terms precluded the claims against NNA. Both Berhane and Allstate argued that the “spoken intent” surrounding the execution of the Release made it clear that the claims against NNA were intended to survive. The Court rejected this argument, stating that a release was subject to the conventional rules of contract construction, and that where the contract was plain and unambiguous, “it must be presumed that the parties meant what they expressed.” The record did not contain sufficient evidence to raise an issue of material fact as to whether there was fraud, accident, or mutual mistake that would require the review of parol evidence. The Court further noted that there was no evidence that NNA consented to the settlement, but only that NNA agreed not to seek contribution from the Wallings. The Court held that claims against NNA had been released as a matter of law.
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