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State Farm Fire and Casualty Company v. Jones

April 18, 2002

STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, AS SUBROGEE OF DOMANUS MASONRY, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD JONES, INDIV. AND D/B/A R.J. MASONRY, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 00-L-154 Honorable Michael T. Caldwell, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer

UNPUBLISHED

Plaintiff, State Farm Fire & Casualty Company, appeals the circuit court's order that dismissed its complaint for contribution against defendant, Ronald Jones, individually and doing business as R.J. Masonry, Incorporated. Plaintiff contends that the court erred in holding that section 2(d) of the Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (the Act) (740 ILCS 100/2(d) (West 2000)) barred its action.

Plaintiff's complaint alleges the following. Plaintiff insured Domanus Masonry, Incorporated (Domanus). Stan Heller hired Domanus to work on his home. Domanus subcontracted with defendant for part of the work. Defendant performed the work negligently, damaging Heller's home. Pursuant to its policy with Domanus, plaintiff paid Heller $57,104.65. Heller executed a release of all claims against Domanus and "R.G. Masonry Wash," which the parties agree refers to defendant.

Plaintiff then filed its complaint for contribution. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, and the trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff filed a timely notice of appeal.

Section 2(a) of the Act provides that where two or more persons are potentially liable in tort for the same injury, a right of contribution exists among them. 740 ILCS 100/2(a) (West 2000). Section 2(c) provides that a release given in good faith to one tortfeasor does not discharge any other tortfeasor from liability (but it may reduce the claim against that party by the settlement amount). 740 ILCS 100/2(c) (West 2000). The specific provisions of the Act relevant to this case read as follows:

"(d) The tortfeasor who settles with a claimant pursuant to paragraph (c) is discharged from all liability for any contribution to any other tortfeasor.

(e) A tortfeasor who settles with a claimant pursuant to paragraph (c) is not entitled to recover contribution from another tortfeasor whose liability is not extinguished by the settlement." 740 ILCS 100/2(d), (e) (West 2000).

In its motion to dismiss, defendant argued that under section 2(d) it had "settled with a claimant" and therefore was discharged from any liability for contribution. The trial court dismissed the complaint, relying on Christmas v. Hughes, 187 Ill. App. 3d 453 (1989). On appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial court mistakenly held that by obtaining a release on behalf of defendant, plaintiff forfeited its right to seek contribution. Plaintiff argues that under section 2(e) it was required to obtain a release on defendant's behalf in order to pursue its contribution claim.

Defendant filed its motion pursuant to section 2--619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--619(a)(9) (West 2000)). A section 2--619(a)(9) motion admits all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom. We review de novo a trial court's dismissal of a complaint under that section. Appelhans v. McFall, 325 Ill. App. 3d 232, 235 (2001).

The issue here is the proper construction of section 2 of the Act. When construing a statute, the language of the statute must be afforded its plain and ordinary meaning, and, where the language is clear and unambiguous, the court must apply the statute without resort to further aids of statutory construction. Burger v. Lutheran General Hospital, 198 Ill. 2d 21, 40 (2001).

The plain meaning of section 2(e) is that a joint tortfeasor who wishes to settle with a claimant and intends to seek contribution from another tortfeasor must secure the other tortfeasor's release in order to preserve its right to contribution. Both the supreme and appellate courts have held that a tortfeasor who settled without obtaining the release of a joint tortfeasor was barred from seeking contribution from that tortfeasor. Dixon v. Chicago & North Western Transportation Co., 151 Ill. 2d 108, 116 (1992); Guerrero v. Sebastian Contracting Corp., 321 Ill. App. 3d 32, 36-37 (2001); Fernandez v. Tempel Steel Corp., 277 Ill. App. 3d 330, 332-33 (1995).

Defendant argues, however, that section 2(d) provides that a tortfeasor who has "settle[d] with a claimant" is discharged from contribution liability. 740 ILCS 100/2(d) (West 2000). Defendant contends that because it was included in Heller's release, it "settled" with him and is not liable for contribution. Defendant contends that cases such as Dixon and Guerrero are distinguishable because there the settlements occurred after the tort victims had filed suit. Defendant argues that because the settlement here occurred before any underlying suit was filed, the case is more like Christmas.

If read broadly, sections 2(d) and 2(e) conflict. Under section 2(e), releasing a joint tortfeasor is a precondition for a settling tortfeasor to maintain an action for contribution against another tortfeasor. However, under section 2(d), a tortfeasor who is deemed to have settled is not liable for contribution. A statute is ambiguous if susceptible to two reasonable, conflicting interpretations. Paciga v. Property Tax Appeal Board, 322 Ill. App. 3d 157, 161 (2001). When confronted ...


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