A tort plaintiff may sue multiple defendants, alleging that each of them played a role in causing the plaintiff’s injury and that the defendants are, therefore, joint tortfeasors. Upon reaching a settlement with one of the joint tortfeasors, the plaintiff releases that defendant from liability in return for payment of the agreed settlement. Does such a release of the settling defendant also release any non-settling defendants?
The answer is clearly “no,” a release of one joint tortfeasor does not release other jointly liable defendants, unless it is the plaintiff’s intention to do so. However, under some circumstances, releasing one defendant may release other defendants whose liability is other than joint.
Massachusetts G.L. c. 231B, §4 provides,
When a release or covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith to one of two or more persons liable in tort for the same injury:
(a) It shall not discharge any of the other tortfeasors from liability for the injury unless its terms so provide; but it shall reduce the claim against the others to the extent of any amount stipulated by the release or the covenant, or in the amount of the consideration paid for it, whichever is the greater; and
(b) It shall discharge the tortfeasor to whom it is given from all liability for contribution to any other tortfeasor.
(Emphasis added). See also Cram v. Town of Northbridge, 410 Mass. 800, 804 (1991) (“We hold that a plaintiff who signs a general release form does not discharge all potential joint tortfeasors who are not specifically mentioned in the release unless the plaintiff intended to do so.”); New Hampshire Ins. Co. v. McCann, 429 Mass. 202, 204 n.2 (1999); Lopez Torres v. Cornu Management Co., Inc., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 1120, 2014 WL 6090309, * 1 (11/14/14) (unpublished Rule 1:28 decision).
However, this rule applies only where the settling defendant and a non-settling defendants are jointly liable. It does not apply where the non-settling defendant is liable only vicariously on the basis of respondeat superior. Elias v. Unisys Corp., 410 Mass. 479, 482 (1991), James-Brown v. Commerce Ins. Co., 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1111, 2014 WL 1325663, * 1 (4/4/14) (unpublished Rule 1:28 decision); Baily v. Town of Bourne, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 70, 72, 76 (1995). Nor does it apply where the defendants are not jointly liable because, “neither … participated in the other’s breach.” Reilly v. Local 589, Amalgamated Transit Union, 31 Mass. App. Ct. 633, 639 (1991).