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Minery v. Fenton

Decided: March 17, 1959.

ALICE MINERY, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF AMOS B. BEAHN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ARTHUR T. FENTON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Heher, Burling, Jacobs, Francis and Proctor. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.

Jacobs

The defendant appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court from a judgment entered in the Mercer County Court in favor of the plaintiff. We certified on our own motion.

The cause was submitted on a stipulation which set forth the following facts: On April 12, 1937 the plaintiff's predecessor obtained a Massachusetts judgment against the defendant in the sum of $6,927.39 plus $27.25 costs. This judgment was entered in an action against the defendant for the wrongful death of the plaintiff's intestate "arising out of the negligence of one Avery H. Gould in the operation of an automobile owned by the defendant." Gould was operating the automobile as the agent or servant of the defendant who was riding in the rumble seat of the automobile at the time of the accident. The complaint in the Massachusetts action against the defendant contained two counts, the first for conscious suffering and the second for death without conscious suffering. Both counts "alleged negligent operation of the automobile by Gould and ownership of the automobile by the defendant." Judgment was rendered in favor of the defendant on the first count, with costs to the defendant in the sum of $17.50, and judgment was rendered in favor of the plaintiff on the second count in the sum of $6,927.39 plus $27.25 costs. When the action against the defendant was instituted in Massachusetts another action was simultaneously instituted against Gould. Both actions were brought under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute. See Annotation Laws of Mass., vol. 7A, c. 229, § 2 C (1955 Comp.); vol. 7 A, c. 229, § 2 (1958 Cum. Supp.). On April 12, 1937 judgment against Gould was entered in the sum of $6,927.39 plus $27.25 costs. In 1954 a complaint on the Massachusetts judgment against the defendant was filed in the Court of Common Pleas, County of Montgomery, Pennsylvania. An appearance was filed, and on

January 21, 1955 a judgment was entered against the defendant for want of an answer. Damages were assessed at $6,954.64 plus costs of $32.88. After this judgment was entered Gould paid the plaintiff's predecessor the sum of $2,500 and in consideration obtained a general release dated October 5, 1955 in which the plaintiff's predecessor released all claims against Gould and particularly all claims under the Massachusetts judgment against him. On October 7, 1955 a satisfaction of the judgment against Gould was duly entered on the court records in Massachusetts.

On May 8, 1957 the plaintiff instituted her action in the Mercer County Court seeking to recover the sum of $6,954.64 and costs of $32.88 on the Pennsylvania judgment against the defendant. An answer was filed which alleged that the Massachusetts judgments against the defendant and Gould "arose from a single cause of action involving the death of Amos B. Beahn, plaintiff's decedent, as the result of an automobile accident in which Avery H. Gould was the driver of an automobile owned by the defendant"; that the plaintiff's predecessor had executed a release to Gould in full satisfaction of the judgment against him; and that "the release to Avery H. Gould has released the defendant from any liability to plaintiff." The trial judge, acting on the stipulated facts, rendered his opinion on May 2, 1958 which rejected the defendant's contention that the release of Gould had released him, and directed that judgment be entered in the plaintiff's favor in the sum of $4,487.52 plus costs, which represented the sum demanded in the plaintiff's complaint less the payment of $2,500 by Gould. Judgment was entered on June 5, 1958 and the defendant appealed, contending that the matter is governed by Massachusetts law and that under that law the release of Gould released the defendant. The defendant asserts further that even if the law of Pennsylvania or New Jersey were controlling, the result would be the same as under Massachusetts law. On the other hand, the plaintiff contends that the defendant is liable under the law of Massachusetts notwithstanding

the $2,500 payment by Gould and his release, and she asserts further that "the defendant is liable under Pennsylvania and New Jersey law."

We consider that the law of Massachusetts is controlling as to the effect of the payment by Gould and his release. See Preine v. Freeman, 112 F. Supp. 257, 260 (D.C.E.D. Va. 1953); Shapiro v. Embassy Dairy, 112 F. Supp. 696, 698 (D.C.E.D.N.C. 1953); cf. Daily v. Somberg, 28 N.J. 372, 381 (1958). The cause of action arose in Massachusetts, the judgment was entered in Massachusetts, the release was apparently executed in Massachusetts by the plaintiff's predecessor as administrator of the estate of Amos B. Beahn under appointment by the Probate Court of Hampden County, Massachusetts, and the administrator's receipt of the $2,500 from Gould "in full satisfaction" of the judgment was duly entered on the records of the Massachusetts Superior Court. When the plaintiff's predecessor accepted the payment from Gould in full satisfaction of the judgment and formally released him without any restrictions or qualifications, he subjected himself to whatever the legal consequences there were, under Massachusetts law, on the related judgment against the defendant. See Brooks v. Neal, 223 Mass. 467, 112 N.E. 78 (1916). The fact that in the interim a Pennsylvania judgment was entered against the defendant on the basis of the Massachusetts judgment did not significantly affect matters, for the entry of the Pennsylvania judgment did not alter the "essential nature and real foundation" of the claim against the defendant. See State of Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co. of New Orleans, 127 U.S. 265, 292, 8 S. Ct. 1370, 32 L. Ed. 239, 244 (1888); American Automobile Ins. Co. v. Niebuhr, 124 N.J. Eq. 372, 376 (Ch. 1938). Immediately upon its entry the Pennsylvania judgment became binding upon the defendant and was entitled to full faith and credit, but any later action by its holder which in contemplation of law amounted to its satisfaction or release could clearly be taken advantage of by the defendant. See Lennon v. Cohen, 264 Mass. 414, 163 N.E. 63, 69 (1928).

Accordingly, the issue before us for determination is whether the action of the plaintiff's predecessor in unconditionally releasing Gould upon his payment of $2,500 in full satisfaction of the judgment against him had the legal effect under Massachusetts law of satisfying or releasing the related claim against the defendant. See Ryan v. Annelin, 228 Mass. 591, 118 N.E. 257 (1918); cf. Fleming v. Dane, 298 Mass. 216, 10 N.E. 2 d 85 (1937); Muse v. De Vito, 243 Mass. 384, 137 N.E. 730 (1923).

In Leonard v. Blake, 298 Mass. 393, 10 N.E. 2 d 469 (1937) the plaintiff, as administrator, brought separate actions under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute against Mrs. Blake and her daughter. The death of the plaintiff's testator was caused by the daughter's negligent operation of her mother's automobile, and the plaintiff recovered separate judgments in the same amount against the mother and daughter. The defendant insurance company, which had insured the mother, paid the judgment against the daughter, and the plaintiff then sought to compel its payment of the judgment against the mother. His claim was denied by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts which pointed out that there had been but a single tort, namely, "the negligence of the daughter in operating the automobile"; that the mother's liability was not based on her fault but on "the agency relationship which existed between the mother and her negligent daughter"; and that since there was only one wrong and "legal satisfaction has been made for that wrong by the payment of the amount of the judgment in the case where the daughter was the defendant," there could be no further recovery against the mother. The plaintiff seeks to distinguish Blake on the ground that there the mother was not present when the accident ...


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