This is an appeal, granted by this court, from a decision of the Municipal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 168 A.2d 529 (1961). As stated by that court, the case presents "one of the questions raised but not answered in McKenna v. Austin." 77 U.S. App.D.C. 228, 134 F.2d 659, 148 A.L.R. 1253 (1943). The court proceeded to that unanswered question. [Appellant in that court is appellee here.]
The facts of the case are briefly stated in the opinion of the Municipal Court of Appeals:
We interpret the last sentence of this quotation to mean that the release for $700 wiped out Caughman's obligation with respect to the payment of any additional sum, either to Hawley or to the Martellos, by reason of the jury's verdict. This comports with our policy of according protective finality to out-of-court settlements by tort-feasors. McKenna v. Austin, supra.
It is to be noted that the issue as to contribution was submitted to the jury to determine only whether Caughman should be compelled to contribute, that is, the jury was to determine whether or not Caughman was actually at fault with the Martellos in bringing about the injury to Hawley. The trial court obviously determined, in the face of the jury's finding that Caughman should contribute, that the verdict should be modified by one-half and entered a judgment of $1000 for Hawley against the Martellos.
The Municipal Court of Appeals stated the problem before it thus:
This court recognizes the fact that the suggestion in McKenna is dictum, and the court there recognized that fact by stating: "What we have said is not for the purpose of deciding these questions in
The Municipal Court of Appeals continued its statement:
The Municipal Court of Appeals answered the question — incorrectly we think — by reversing, and directed the entry of judgment on the original verdict of $2000. It in effect held that the right to contribution was limited to credit for the amount paid by the tort-feasor settling but, because the jury was aware of the $700 settlement, concluded that the jury "must have awarded the $2000 as additional damages necessary to fully compensate [Hawley]."
It should be noted that the question posed by this case is not easily answered. Involved are basic principles not readily susceptible of reconciliation with each other. Contribution is a right existing among joint tort-feasors based upon the theory that, as each tort-feasor was at fault in bringing about the injury to the innocent party, then in justice each tort-feasor should share his part in the burden of making the injured party whole again.
We think the holding of the Municipal Court of Appeals would leave the door too far open to fraud and collusion. This danger was recognized in Knell v. Feltman, 85 U.S.App.D.C. 22, 174 F.2d 662 (1949), and in Henry Fuel Co. v. Whitebread, 99 U.S.App.D.C. 9, 236 F.2d 742 (1956), where we quoted the following language from Knell:
Accordingly, we now hold in the factual circumstances of this case that when settlement is made with one joint tort-feasor and later a verdict is obtained against the other, and the jury finds that the settling tort-feasor should contribute, then the verdict should be credited with one-half its total amount and the defendant tort-feasor should be required to pay only the remaining balance, namely, one-half the total original verdict. It is true that in a case like the present one, where the verdict figure is in excess of twice the settlement figure, the application of this formula will necessarily reduce the amount of the injured plaintiff's recovery. However, the answer to objection to the formula on this account is that, by his settlement, the plaintiff has sold one-half of his claim for damages. Anything else would be unfair to the settling tortfeasor, who has bought his peace, and unfair to the defendant tort-feasor, who should not be disadvantaged by a settlement to which he was not a party and to which he did not consent.
As above noted, the jury was allowed to receive evidence to the effect that the settling tort-feasor had paid $700.00 in settlement of claims against him. This was due to the rather inconclusive testimony of Hawley, who, while admitting that she received the sum of $700.00 in settlement with Caughman, at first denied signing a release although later she admitted that the signature on the release looked like hers.
In a case such as the one before us, the jury should not be allowed to know either the fact or the amount of any settlement; such information only tends to mislead them in their deliberations concerning a just compensatory verdict. However, if the fact or the amount of the settlement, for some reason or other, is brought to the attention of the jury, as happened in the instant case, then the judge, in his charge, should instruct the jury to disregard this information in arriving at their evaluation of the damages, if any, suffered by the plaintiff as a result of his injury, and to bring in a verdict representing the full amount of the plaintiff's damages. If contribution is found applicable in the circumstances, the court should credit the amount of the verdict by one-half. The judgment of the Municipal Court of Appeals is reversed and the case remanded to that court with directions to affirm the original judgment of $1000.00.