Confidential Settlements are Discoverable to Determine Joint Tortfeasor Status and Contribution

In Richard Tempel, et al. v. Elena L. Murphy, et al., No. 1199 Sept. Term 2010 (Oct. 28, 2011), the Court of Special Appeals addressed two questions: (1) whether a non-settling defendant has a right to inspect the settling defendants settlement agreements prior to judgment; and (2) whether Plaintiffs' evidence of the decedent's future economic loss is speculative if his retirement age cannot be proven with certainty.

Right to Inspect Settlement Agreements

After learning that co-defendants had settled with plaintiffs, co-defendants Dr. Richard Tempel and his employer, Osler Drive Emergency Physicians Association, requested a copy of the settlement agreements and releases on the basis that they "would significantly impact upon plaintiffs' defense strategy." Plaintiffs also suggested that they were entitled to determine if the release was a joint tortfeasor type release and the amounts paid by the other defendants on the basis that it would "dramatically impact upon defense strategies." The co-defendants refused to provide the releases but stated that they were "standard non-Swigert Joint Tortfeasor Releases" and that the amounts of settlement were not relevant until after a verdict had been rendered against the non-settling defendants to determine the appropriate amount owed by them. Unsatisfied with this response, the non-settling defendants filed a motion to compel production of the settlement agreements. The trial court ruled that the non-settling defendants were absolutely entitled to know what type of release was negotiated so that they could know how to proceed at trial, but denied the plaintiffs from discovering the settlement amounts contained therein.

The Court of Special Appeals cited Rule 2-402(a) for the proposition that:

a party may obtain discovery regarding any matter that is not privileged, including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents . . . and tangible . . . if the matter sought is relevant to the subject matter involved in the action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or to the claim or defense of any other party. It is not ground for objection that the information sought is already known to or otherwise obtainable by the party seeking discovery or that the information will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

"Absent some fact in a given case that would change the result, the settlement amount contained in a joint tortfeasor release is not relevant at the pre-verdict stage." "Here, the settlement amounts did not, in any way, concern the facts relevant to a determination of [the non-settling defendants] liability or the amount of any damages; thus, they were not relevant at the pre-verdict stage." Even after final judgment, "the settlement would not be evidence relevant to any issue in the case other than the ministerial apportionment of damages." Bullinger. Here, the releases were relevant pre-trial because the nature of the releases would determine whether the non-settling defendants, if liable, would receive an automatic pro rata reduction or whether the joint tortfeasor status of the settling parties would have to be adjudicated. Accordingly, the Court of Special Appeals in affirming the trial court's ruling found that the non-settling defendants were properly provided with the pertinent information at the stage in the proceedings in which the information was relevant.

Sufficiency of Evidence to Determine Economic Loss

As to the second issue, the Appellants argued that the trial court erred by not granting their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict "as to the speculative nature of the jury's award for loss of Mr. Murphy's financial support" because plaintiffs' failed to prove this element of their claim." Defendants asserted that the award of $600,000 was "overly speculative" because there was no evidence upon which the jury could have concluded that Mr. Murphy, who died at the age of 59, would have retired at age 66 or 67, rather than 61, 62, or 70.

The evidence at trial was from plaintiffs' economic expert, Dr. Thomas Borzilleri, who testified that his calculations were based upon the decedent's W-2 forms and the Social Security Administration's "growth rates" and the assumption that Mr. Murphy would work until age 66 or 67 using the "Work Life Expectancy" calculation and the U.S. Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation's "Life Expectancy Table." There was additional testimony from the decedent's family members regarding his work habits, outlook, savings habits and intentions of saving enough money to send his children to college.

The Court of Special Appeals held that the plaintiffs did not have to prove a specific age at which decedent would have retired. The Court also held that the jury could consider the totality of the evidence as to the decedent's age, health, employment, financial situation, and general population statistics (i.e. life expectancy and work life expectancy) provided by Dr. Borzilleri and the testimony from decedent's family members describing the decedent prior to the events which gave rise to the lawsuit, to determine the amount of lost support.
Categories: Contribution, Maryland