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Knell v. Feltman

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Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs were passengers in a car driven by Knell, when the car collided with a taxicab owned by Feltman. Plaintiffs sued Feltman, who filed a third-party complaint against Knell for contributory negligence. The court ordered contribution by Knell to Feltman. Knell claims that contribution is not warranted because joint liability was not established.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. As long as concurrent tortfeasors are not intentional wrongdoers, contribution will be enforced regardless of whether or not a joint judgment is entered against them.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

we adopt for the District of Columbia the rule that when the parties are not intentional and wilful wrongdoers, but are made so by legal inference or intendment, contribution may be enforced.

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Facts. This case involves a car accident. The Plaintiffs, Evelyn Langland (Mrs. Langland) and her husband (Plaintiffs), were guest passengers in a car driven by Kenneth Knell. The car they were riding in collided with a taxicab owned by the Defendant, Ralph Feltman (Feltman) and operated by his employee. Mrs. Langland was seriously injured in the accident. The Plaintiffs sued the Defendant to recover damages. The Defendant filed a third-party complaint against Knell, claiming the accident was caused by his sole or contributing negligence. The jury found both the Defendant and Knell negligent. The court awarded judgment in favor of Plaintiffs against the Defendant for $11,500, and upon payment, judgment in favor of Defendant against Knell for $5,750. Knell appeals, claiming that the right of contribution exists only between tortfeasors liable in common to the plaintiff and his liability to the Plaintiffs was not established by the judgment because the Plaintiffs did not include him in
the suit.

Issue. Is a joint judgment against tortfeasors who commit a tort through concurrent negligence a prerequisite for enforcement of contribution?

Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
* Knell’s argument that contribution can only be enforced if both tortfeasors are judgment debtors to the plaintiff fails for two reasons. First, it is at odds with the Rule 14(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), which allows a defendant to bring into the action any person who may be liable to him for damages regardless of if the plaintiff seeks judgment against him. Second, it is illogical, as the right to contribution cannot be based upon a selection of defendants by the plaintiff.
* Based on the Merryweather holding [Merryweather v. Nixan, 8 term Rep. 186, 101 Eng.Rep. 1337 (K.B.1799)], a majority of American courts have held that there can be no contribution between joint or concurrent tortfeasors. However, this Court feels that this is a misinterpretation of Merryweather, differentiating between intentional wrongdoers and those whose unpurposed negligence results in a tort. This Court holds that so long as the concurrent tortfeasors are not intentional wrongdoers, contribution will be enforced regardless of whether or not a joint judgment is entered against them.

Discussion. A substantial majority of states now permit contribution among joint tortfeasors, either by statute or judicial decision.

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