Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Defendants can Argue that the Settled Tortfeasor is Solely Responsible

Adams v. Yokooji (ICA January 13, 2012)

Background. One night in Kailua Stephen Adams got out of a taxi cab and was crossing Kalanianaole Highway in a crosswalk in order to catch the bus when he was hit by a car driven by Robynn Yokooji. Adams' estate sued Yokooji, the Department of Transportation, and Luteru Manu, the taxi driver. Adams claimed that the DOT owed a duty to properly design and maintain the crosswalk and roadway and breached that duty. Adams settled with Yokooji and Manu, and prepared for trial against the DOT.

Adams filed a motion in limine; the motion sought an order precluding the DOT from introducing evidence to establish or infer liability or negligence of the settled defendants. The circuit court granted the motion and prohibited the DOT from using any evidence or arguing that the accident was entirely caused by the settled defendants. During the opening statements, Adams said that the DOT's maintenance of lighting, traffic signs, and crosswalk signage would show its negligence. The DOT countered during its opening that the lighting and signage were not causes of the accident. In fact, according to the DOT, there was evidence that the lights were in perfect working order that night. Adams immediately objected and argued that that evidence served no purpose other than to show that Yokooji was solely at fault. The circuit court permitted the DOT to continue with its opening.

The DOT moved onto state that Helen Rasay was driving behind Yokooji and saw Adams crossing the road. Adams objected again on the same grounds. The circuit court overruled the objection. The DOT moved onto discuss its expert who would testify about the "line of sight" establishing that Yokooji should have been able to see Adams. Again, Adams objected. The DOT finally maintained that without this evidence, it would not be able to defend itself. After the DOT finished its opening statement, the circuit court permitted Adams to file an interlocutory appeal to resolve the issue.

The Effect of Settling with only one Joint Tortfeasor. A good-faith settlement with a joint tortfeasor shall "not discharge any other joint tortfeasor or co-obligor not released from liability unless its terms so provide[.]" HRS § 633-15.5(a)(1). The statute also reduces "the claims against the other joint tortfeasor . . . and [d]ischarge[s] the part to whom it is given from all liability for any contribution to any other joint tortfeasor or co-obligor." HRS § 633-15.5(a)(2)-(3). Moreover, a good-faith settlement bars other tortfeasors from claims against the settling tortfeasor and dismisses all cross-claims filed against the settling joint tortfeasor. HRS § 633-15.5(d); see also Troyer v. Adams, 102 Hawai'i 399, 77 P.3d 83 (2003).

The Remaining Claim Against the DOT. The plaintiff has the burden of proving the elements to a negligence action--duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Takayama v. Kaiser Found. Hosp., 82 Hawai'i 486, 498-99, 923 P.2d 903, 915-16 (1996). Here, the Plaintiffs planned on showing that the DOT's negligence brought about Adams' death. The DOT, however, intended to show that it was not a joint tortfeasor and that it did not cause the accident. In order to challenge the causation element, the DOT has to show that it was not bad lighting but driver inattentiveness that brought about the death. The ICA determined whether the DOT should be permitted to present evidence rebutting Adams' causation evidence. The ICA answered in the affirmative.

Evidence that the Settled Defendant was Solely Responsible is not Precluded by Statute. The ICA held that evidence pointing the finger directly at a defendant who already settled before trial is not barred by HRS § 633-15.5. The ICA relied on precedent from Illinois. Leonardi v. Loyola Univ. of Chicago, 658 N. E. 2d 450, 459 (Ill. 1995) ("if there is evidence that negates causation, a defendant should show it."); Nolan v. Weil-McLain, 910 N. E. 2d 549, 564 (Ill. 2009) ("the plaintiff exclusively bears the burden of proof to establish the element of causation through competent evidence, and that a defendant has the right to rebut such evidence and to also establish that the conduct of another causative factor is the sole proximate cause of the injury."); Ready v. United/Goedecke Services, Inc., 939 N. E. 2d 417, (defendant may "present evidence that the injury was the result of another cause.") (Ill. 2010).

The Right to Rebut a Plaintiff's Claim is far from Revolutionary. The ICA expressly adopted the Illinois precedent. In doing so, the ICA seems to have impliedly held that just as much as the plaintiff has a right to bring the action and prove negligence claims--including the causation element--the defendant has the right to rebut that element with evidence negating causation. This is far from revolutionary. It is not a new defense at all. HRS § 663-15.5 does not discuss what evidence is admissible at trial, but rather the legal effect of settling with a joint tortfeasor.

So what does the Statute do? The ICA, in a footnote, stated that if the DOT's evidence is insufficient and Adams prevails, the statute prevents the DOT from recovering against the settled defendants.

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