The traditional principle of joint and several liability is alive and well in Delaware, despite the fact that many states have begun to limit joint and several liability laws. In 2011, Pennsylvania, for example, modified its joint and several liability law and severely limited an injured plaintiff’s ability to seek full financial compensation from a single defendant in multi-defendant cases.
In a 2015 case, Tull v. Friend, the Delaware Superior Court (Kent County) affirmed that in Delaware, joint and several liability is still the law. The Tull case involved two auto accidents which occurred 2 years apart. The plaintiff brought a lawsuit against both of the at-fault defendants. She then settled with one of the defendants.
The issue in that case was whether the defendant who settled with the plaintiff could be dismissed from the case, which continued against the second defendant. In holding that the settling defendant could be dismissed from the case, the court reaffirmed the principle of joint and several liability in Delaware. The court also reaffirmed that joint and several liability applies, even where two auto accidents, separated by time and space, are alleged to have caused a single, indivisible injury to the plaintiff.
Given the current status of joint and several liability in Delaware, it’s clear that Delaware remains a plaintiff-friendly state for tort cases, such as car and truck accident lawsuits.
Joint & Several Liability in Delaware
Joint and several liability applies when multiple parties are held liable for causing a single injury. Delaware courts have long recognized that when the negligence of two or more persons converge to produce a single, indivisible injury, they are jointly and severally liable.
This allows an injured plaintiff to seek financial recovery from either one or both of the defendants, so long as the total amount recovered does not exceed the total amount of the verdict or judgement. Essentially, the plaintiff can choose from whom to obtain recovery; either tortfeasor (defendant) can be held individually liable for the entire amount awarded.
Example: In an auto accident case in Delaware, two defendants are held liable for causing the plaintiff’s injuries. They are found to share liability (50-50). Defendant A has a minimum auto insurance policy, with a $15,000 bodily injury coverage limit. Defendant B has a $100,000 bodily injury coverage limit. The verdict is $100,000.
Under Delaware’s joint and several liability law, the plaintiff has the legal right to seek the full amount of the verdict/judgement against either one of the defendants. Plaintiff could receive the entire $100,000 verdict amount from Defendant B. Alternatively, the plaintiff could receive $15,000 from Defendant A and $85,000 from Defendant B.
Delaware’s Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act – What Happens When One Defendant Settles?
In multiple defendant cases in Delaware, like auto accident cases, it is very common for the plaintiff to reach a settlement with one of the defendants. The case then proceeds against the remaining defendant(s). What happens to the liability of the remaining defendant(s)?
Under Delaware’s Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, when one defendant settles with the plaintiff and is dismissed from the case, the other defendant’s liability will ultimately be reduced by the amount of the settlement with the dismissed defendant, provided there is a judicial finding that they are joint-tortfeasors. See Medical Center v. Mullins (Supreme Court of Delaware, 1994).
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