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O'Connell v. Walmsley

Superior Court of Rhode Island

May 6, 2015

MAUREEN O'CONNELL and PAUL ROBERTI, in their capacities as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Brendan M. O'Connell Roberti, Plaintiffs
v.
WILLIAM WALMSLEY, Defendant

Kent County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Gregory S. Inman, Esq.

For Defendant: David E. Maglio, Esq.

DECISION

GALLO, J.

This matter is before this Court on the cross-motions of the Plaintiffs and the Defendant for entry of judgment in their favor following remand by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

This case involves a fatal automobile accident that occurred on March 9, 2003.[1] At approximately 10:30 p.m., Jason Goffe (Goffe) and Michael Petrarca (Petrarca) were driving a Toyota Corolla and a Ford F350, respectively, on the New London Turnpike. Brendan O'Connell Roberti (Roberti) was a passenger in Goffe's vehicle. Goffe and Petrarca were racing one another at high speeds when Goffe lost control of his car and spun into the eastbound lane. A third vehicle, operated by the Defendant, William Walmsley (Walmsley), travelling eastbound, collided with Goffe's vehicle. As a result of the accident, both Goffe and Roberti were pronounced dead at the scene.

Suit was filed on February 28, 2005 by Plaintiffs, the parents of Roberti, against the following parties: Walmsley, the driver of the vehicle that struck Goffe's vehicle; Donald Goffe, owner of the vehicle operated by his son, Jason Goffe; and GEICO Insurance Company (GEICO), Goffe's insurer. Walmsley subsequently filed a third-party complaint against Petrarca and Tapco, Inc., operator and owner respectively of the vehicle that Goffe was racing, alleging that Petrarca's negligent driving contributed to the collision that caused the decedent's death.

Prior to trial, Plaintiffs settled with GEICO and Goffe in the amount of $145, 000. As consideration for said settlement, Plaintiffs agreed to release GEICO and Goffe from any and all future claims for damages arising from the March 9, 2003 accident and, importantly, agreed that "all claims recoverable" by the Plaintiffs "are hereby reduced by the statutory pro rata share of negligence of . . . Goffe . . . under the Uniform Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act of the State of Rhode Island, or the sum of . . . $145, 000 . . . whichever is the greater reduction." (Goffe Release.)

Plaintiffs also settled with Petrarca and Tapco, Inc. prior to trial in the amount of $250, 000. In language almost identical to the Goffe Release, Plaintiffs agreed as consideration for the settlement to release Petrarca and Tapco, Inc. from any and all future claims for damages arising from the March 9, 2003 accident and also to reduce "any damage recoverable by [Plaintiffs] against all other persons . . . jointly or severally liable" to them by the "pro rata share of liability of [Petrarca and Tapco, Inc.] . . . or in the amount of the consideration paid" pursuant to the settlement, "whichever amount is greater[.]" (Petrarca Release.)

On June 22, 2010, the matter proceeded to trial exclusively against Walmsley, the only Defendant who had not yet settled. A jury rendered a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs on July 2, 2010. In apportioning liability among tortfeasors, the jury specifically found Walmsley's contributing fault in the accident to amount to 3%. The jury further determined Plaintiffs' damages, without adjusting in accordance with percentages of liability, to be $10, 000. (Verdict sheet.)

Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a Super. R. Civ. P. 59 (Rule 59) motion for a new trial and a motion for an additur to $250, 000, the statutory minimum under G.L. 1956 § 10-7-2.[2] Walmsley in turn filed a Super. R. Civ. P. 50(b) (Rule 50) renewed motion for judgment. The trial justice granted Walmsley's motion and entered judgment in Walmsley's favor. Additionally, the trial justice ruled pursuant to Rule 50(c) that in the event his decision to grant Walmsley's Rule 50(b) motion was overturned on appeal, Plaintiffs' motions for an additur and for new trial would be conditionally granted: that is, if Plaintiffs did not accept the additur increasing the jury's verdict to $250, 000, a new trial on both liability and damages would be held.[3]

The decision to grant Walmsley's Rule 50(b) motion was reversed by our Supreme Court on June 23, 2014, O'Connell, 93 A.3d 60, and accordingly, the case was remanded to this Court. On remand, Plaintiffs have moved for entry of judgment in their favor against Walmsley in the amount of $250, 000 in accordance with the additur. Walmsley, on his part, has filed a motion for summary judgment requesting, in effect, a determination from this Court that he is not obligated to pay any amount to Plaintiffs, because the jury verdict has been fully satisfied by virtue of the Goffe and Petrarca settlements.

Plaintiffs advocate for a literal and mechanical application of § 10-7-2 and contend that because Walmsley was found liable for a wrongful death, he must be liable for a judgment of $250, 000 at a minimum, despite the marginal percentage of liability assigned to him. Additionally, Plaintiffs contend that the joint tortfeasors statute, § 10-6-7, does not provide for a mandatory reduction in damages for each release of a joint tortfeasor, but rather the language of the releases at issue should be controlling. Finally, Plaintiffs submit that the minimum recovery amount of $250, 000 must be imposed against Walmsley because it is a special provision that conflicts with the general provisions of § 10-6-7 allowing a reduction in damages pursuant to the Goffe and Petrarca Releases.

Walmsley argues that the contractual language of the Goffe and Petrarca Releases is clear-that each release reduces the amount that "other tortfeasors" must pay to Plaintiffs-and that it should be enforced accordingly. Walmsley also emphasizes that a reduction in his liability pursuant to § 10-6-7 would not result in a violation of the minimum recovery set forth in § 10-7-2 ...


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