In its opinion filed on December 2, 2019, the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware (“Delaware Supreme Court”) held: “Since the release provides that the plaintiff’s claim is reduced by “the greater” of Dr. Principe’s pro rata share of responsibility, whatever that amount may be, or $1,000,000, the release reduces the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS by the entire amount of plaintiff’s damages. The release, therefore, completely exhausts any damages that could be asserted against CCHS and operates as a full satisfaction of the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS.”
The Underlying Facts
A woman died two days after having surgery at the defendant hospital, Christiana Care Hospital, which is operated by Christiana Care Health Services, Inc. (“CCHS”). The Delaware medical malpractice complaint filed by the woman’s daughter, individually and as administratrix of the woman’s estate, named as defendants Dr. Michael Principe, who performed the surgery, Dr. Eric Johnson, who assisted him, and CCHS. The sole claim against CCHS is that the two doctors were its agents and it is vicariously liable for their alleged negligence during the surgery.
A mediation resulted in settlement of all the plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Principe and his medical practice. As part of that settlement, the plaintiff signed a release which released all such claims. CCHS was not a party to the settlement or the release. Following that settlement, CCHS filed its motion for partial summary judgment against the plaintiff on the theory that the release of Dr. Principe released it from any vicarious liability for Dr. Principe’s alleged negligence. The Superior Court denied the motion. CCHS then filed an appeal.
Delaware Supreme Court Opinion
The Delaware Supreme Court held: “the written release operated as a complete satisfaction of the plaintiff’s vicarious liability claim against CCHS arising from Dr. Principe’s alleged conduct, and the motion for partial summary judgment should have been granted.” The Delaware Supreme Court explained: “The application of the plain and unambiguous language of this provision in this case leads to the conclusion that the release extinguishes the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS. CCHS is an “entity not released herein” which is, at least, “severally liable with [Dr. Principe] to [the plaintiff] in tort or otherwise.” The provision reduces the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS by “the greater of [Dr. Principe’s] pro rata share of liability or responsibility for such damages or the sum of $1,000,000 and operate[s] as a satisfaction of those claims . . . to that extent.” In the context of a vicariously liable principal, the agent’s pro rata share of responsibility for the plaintiff’s damages is the entire amount of those damages. Since the release provides that the plaintiff’s claim is reduced by “the greater” of Dr. Principe’s pro rata share of responsibility, whatever that amount may be, or $1,000,000, the release reduces the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS by the entire amount of plaintiff’s damages. The release, therefore, completely exhausts any damages that could be asserted against CCHS and operates as a full satisfaction of the plaintiff’s claim against CCHS.”
Source Christiana Care Health Services Inc. v. Carter, No. 58, 2019.
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