Did the trial court correctly apply West Virginia law regarding comparative negligence, contribution, and settlement in a case sounding in both contract and tort?
This case raises interesting issues involving comparative negligence, contribution and settlement. It adds another level of complexity because it involves not only tort claims, but also breach-of-contract claims.
Jarrett Smith and his wife, Sharon, were injured when they collided with a truck that was parked in a roadway by Billy Jo McLaughlin, a driver for Modular Building Consultants. McLaughlin was in the process of picking up a storage container that was being used by Poerio at a construction site. Smith sued both McLaughlin and Modular who, in turn, sued Poerio. Modular’s claims against Poerio arose out of their lease agreement for the storage container which provided, in part, that Poerio would provide indemnity for any losses resulting from a breach of a lease. Modular alleged that Poerio breached the lease by (1) moving the container, and (2) failing to provide access to the container when it was time for pickup.
McLaughlin and Modular reached a settlement with the Smiths. Thereafter, trial proceeded solely on the claims against Poerio. The jury concluded that McLaughlin, Modular and Poerio were each guilty of negligence, but that Poerio did not breach its lease. The trial court entered judgment in Poerio’s favor and denied Modular’s post trial motions. This appeal followed.
Petitioners: (McLaughlin and Modular)
McLaughlin and Modular make three basic arguments in their brief. First, they argue that the jury’s verdict is inconsistent. Because the jury found Poerio to be 20% negligent, it must, as a matter of law, be guilty of breaching the lease. Second, they argue that the trial court erred in finding that the settlement with the Smiths extinguished their claim for common law contribution. Finally, they argue that the jury should not have considered the negligence of the Smiths because their claims were settled before trial and they were no longer parties to the litigation.
Regarding the jury verdict, Poerio argues that the finding of negligence is not inconsistent with the finding that Poerio did not breach the lease. Indeed, McLaughlin and Modular conceded as much at the trial stage. Poerio also argues that, under longstanding law, the settlement with the Smiths automatically extinguished any contribution claims McLaughlin and Modular might have had. Finally, Poerio argues that the negligence of the Smiths was properly considered by the jury for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that Poerio asserted contributory negligence as a defense.
We are not likely to see any new syllabus law. Nevertheless, this case could be significant. More and more often, we are seeing “blended” cases that simultaneously raise tort and breach-of-contract issues. This will provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to provide guidance on how issues involving comparative negligence, contribution, and settlement should be addressed in a “blended” case.