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O'Connell v. Walmsley

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

March 27, 2017

Maureen O'Connell et al.
William Walmsley.

         Kent County Superior Court (KC 05-161) Associate Justice Bennett R. Gallo

          For Plaintiffs: Joanna M. Achille, Esq. Gregory S. Inman, Esq.

          For Defendant: David E. Maglio, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



         This appeal emanates from a tragic automobile accident that occurred on the evening of March 9, 2003, in Coventry, Rhode Island.[1] Maureen O'Connell and Paul Roberti (plaintiffs) challenge the hearing justice's grant of summary judgment in favor of William Walmsley (Walmsley or defendant). This matter came before the Supreme Court on March 8, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why this Court should not summarily decide the issues raised by this appeal. After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the memoranda submitted on behalf of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. Thus, further briefing or argument is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I Facts and Travel

         At about 10:30 p.m. on March 9, 2003, Jason Goffe (operating a Toyota Corolla) and Michael Petrarca (operating a Ford F-350) were high-speed racing on the New London Turnpike in a westerly direction. Also present in Goffe's car was passenger Brendan O'Connell Roberti. After losing control of his vehicle, Goffe whirled into the eastbound lane. At this juncture, Walmsley, who had been driving his vehicle eastbound, struck Goffe's vehicle. This tragedy resulted in the deaths of Goffe and Roberti.

         The plaintiffs (Roberti's parents), in their capacities as co-administrators of Roberti's Estate, initiated suit against several defendants, including Walmsley. The plaintiffs also sued Donald Goffe, Goffe's father, who owned the vehicle he drove, and Geico General Insurance Company (GEICO), which insured the same vehicle. Moreover, Walmsley joined Petrarca and Tapco, Inc., which owned the truck driven by Petrarca, by way of a third-party complaint for indemnification and contribution alleging that Petrarca's negligence was a contributing cause of Roberti's death.

         Donald Goffe and GEICO settled with plaintiffs prior to trial for $145, 000 (Goffe Release) whereby plaintiffs released both parties from future-damages claims stemming from the accident. Additionally, plaintiffs agreed that all potentially recoverable claims by plaintiffs were "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." Similarly, before trial, plaintiffs entered into a settlement agreement with Petrarca and Tapco, Inc. for $250, 000 (Petrarca Release), which released Petrarca and Tapco, Inc. from future claims arising out of the accident. In the Petrarca Release, plaintiffs also promised to reduce "any damage recoverable by [p]laintiffs against all other persons * * * jointly or severally liable" to plaintiffs by the "pro rata share of liability of [Petrarca and Tapco, Inc.] * * * or in the amount of the consideration paid" under the agreement, "whichever amount is greater[.]"

         Because of the settlement releases, Walmsley was the sole defendant who advanced to trial, which began on June 21, 2010. The defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law at the conclusion of plaintiffs' case; however, the trial justice reserved ruling on the issue to permit the case to go before the jury. On July 2, 2010, the jury found Walmsley negligent and deemed his negligence a proximate cause of Roberti's death. The jury also apportioned fault among each driver and deemed Walmsley 3 percent at fault.[2] The jury assessed the estate's total damages and awarded $10, 000 against Walmsley without modifying this figure to account for liability percentages.

         The defendant then renewed his motion for judgment as a matter of law, which the trial justice granted. The plaintiffs moved for a new trial and an additur. Specifically, plaintiffs cited G.L. 1956 § 10-7-2 to request an additur to $250, 000-the statutory minimum corresponding with wrongful-death cases. The trial justice ruled conditionally that, if defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law was overturned on appeal, he would grant plaintiffs' motion for an additur. Alternatively, the trial justice ruled that, if plaintiffs did not accept the additur, he would grant their motion for a new trial with respect to both damages and liability. On September 22, 2010, judgment entered for defendant. The plaintiffs timely appealed, with the sole issue on appeal being the trial justice's grant of defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law. This Court vacated the Superior Court's judgment and remanded the case for additional proceedings.[3]

         On remand before a different justice, plaintiffs sought judgment for $250, 000 entered against Walmsley per the additur. Conversely, Walmsley moved for summary judgment and sought a finding by the Superior Court that he was not required to pay any sum to plaintiffs, based on the two releases that he asserted fully satisfied the damages award.

         The plaintiffs asserted that § 10-7-2 mandated a finding that defendant was liable to them for at least $250, 000, irrespective of the minor percentage of fault attributed to defendant and the other sums received under the Goffe and Petrarca Releases. The plaintiffs further averred that G.L. 1956 § 10-6-7, which governs the "[e]ffect of release of one tortfeasor on [the] liability of others[, ]" did not mandate a reduction in damages upon a joint tortfeasor's release. Instead, plaintiffs suggested that the language of the applicable releases governed only the effect of a joint tortfeasor's release, if any. Lastly, plaintiffs argued that, because they read § 10-7-2 as ...

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