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Slocum v. Donahue

Citation. Slocum v. Donahue, 430 Mass. 1108, 720 N.E.2d 469 (Mass. Oct. 25, 1999)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Plaintiffs, the Slocums (Plaintiffs) filed a civil action against the Defendants, Robert F. Donahue and Dolores J. Donahue (Defendants), for negligence resulting in the vehicular death of their son. The Donahues filed a third-party complaint against Ford Motor Company (Ford) claiming Ford was negligent in the car design and requesting contribution or indemnification. The trial court denied the third-party complaint on summary judgment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Indemnification is only allowed when the defendant is vicariously or derivatively liable for the wrongful act of another. Contribution is not allowed under this statute when a settlement agreement is reached in good faith.


Robert Donahue pled guilty to a motor vehicle homicide resulting in the death of the Plaintiff’s eighteen-month-old son. The Plaintiffs filed a civil action against the Defendants claiming negligence and gross negligence. The Defendants filed a third-party complaint against Ford, denying negligence and seeking contribution and indemnification based on Ford’s negligence. The Defendants’ expert was prepared to testify that the driver’s side floor mat was defective, allowing it to interfere with the vacuum booster, which caused the power breaks to fail. Prior to trial, Ford and the Plaintiffs signed a settlement agreement releasing Ford from any claim. Ford then moved for summary judgment asserting that all claims for contribution were extinguished by the settlement agreement and that there is no basis for the Defendants’ claims for indemnity. The trial court dismissed the third-party complaint and the Defendants appealed.


Was it appropriate for the trial court to dismiss the third-party complaint for contribution and indemnification on a motion for summary judgment?


Yes. Judgment affirmed.
* Pursuant to G.L. c. 231B, Section: 4, a release given in good faith to one of two or more persons liable in tort for the same injury, discharges the tortfeasor from liability for contribution to any other torfeasor. The Defendants claim that the settlement was not made in good faith because the amount of the settlement was for less than the value of the case and because Ford allegedly told the Plaintiffs it would allow them to use its experts.
* The Court believes there were facts to allow the trial court to determine the settlement was fair and reasonable. Even if the settlement was low, it was reasonable to think a jury might find no liability on the part of Ford, given the facts that Robert Donahue pleaded guilty in the criminal case and admitted to drinking from a bottle of vodka in the car prior to the accident. This Court also states that the Defendants’ contention that the Plaintiffs’ use of experts originally retained by Ford is evidence of collusion is invalid because it is equally evidence that the Plaintiffs settled with Ford because they believe it was not responsible for their son’s death.
* The right to indemnity allows someone without fault who is compelled by law to defend himself to recover from the wrongdoer the entire amount of loss. The right to indemnity is allowed only when the indemnitee is vicariously or derivatively liable for the wrongful act of another. Robert Donahue was found negligent in this case and his liability is not vicarious. Therefore, he is not entitled to indemnification by Ford.


This case demonstrates the difference between contribution and indemnification. Indemnification is only available when the defendant is not directly at fault, such as in a respondeat superior case.

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