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Joint and Several Liability: The Classic Rules

Suppose that Joule was a close friend of Fermi’s (or his boss) and Fermi, understandably reluctant to sue Joule, sued Edison only. At common law if a joint tortfeasor like Edison were found liable and paid the judgment, he had no right to force other tortfeasors to “contribute” to the judgment. Edison was liable for the damages, was justly made to pay them, and had no complaint if Joule got off without paying. The courts refused to adjust the loss as between the wrongdoers, just as it refused (under the doctrine of contributory negligence) to adjust a loss between a negligent plaintiff and a negligent defendant. This classic no-contribution rule is no longer the law in most states, but it was for many years. See Chapter 22, which analyzes the basic principles of contribution among joint tortfeasors, and Chapter 26, which illustrates some of the current variations.

Figure 21-1

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