Release Me!

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In Hoffman v. Horn, the plaintiff underwent a rhinoplasty and surgery for a deviated septum at nonparty Beth Israel Medical Center (“Medical Center”). The procedures were performed by the defendants Corinne E. Horn and Scott D. Gold (“defendant doctors”), who were allegedly employed by the defendant New York Otolaryngology Group. After the procedures, the plaintiff contacted the Medical Center and informed it that she suffered a loss of a crown and two cracked teeth due to the negligence of the anesthesiologist. The plaintiff was unrepresented, and accepted a settlement from the Medical Center. As part of the settlement, the plaintiff executed a general release in favor of the Medical Center, which stated, in pertinent part:

"[The plaintiff] releases and discharges BETH ISRAEL MEDICAL CENTER, its agents, servants and employees

. . .

"THIS RELEASE and settlement constitutes complete payment for all damages and injuries and is specifically intended to release the RELEASEE and also is specifically intended to release, whether presently known or unknown, all other tortfeasors liable or claimed to be liable jointly with the RELEASEE; and, whether presently known or unknown, all other potential or possible tortfeasors liable or claimed to be liable jointly with the RELEASEE."

The plaintiff subsequently commenced this action to recover damages for medical malpractice and lack of informed consent, alleging that the defendant doctors failed to give her proper information before performing the procedures, and that the procedures left her with a disfigured nose and sleep problems. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming that the general release was broad enough to include them. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that the release was only intended to release the Medical Center, and that it specifically releases only joint tortfeasors. The plaintiff contended that the defendant doctors were not joint tortfeasors with the Medical Center, but rather separate tortfeasors liable for their malpractice independent of the Medical Center. The Supreme Court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed the Supreme Court’s decision, reasoning that pursuant to General Obligations Law § 15-108(a), “[w]hen a release . . . is given to one of two or more persons liable or claimed to be liable in tort for the same injury, . . . it does not discharge any of the other tortfeasors from liability for the injury . . . unless its terms expressly so provide.” The Appellate Court found that the release signed by the plaintiff was unambiguously limited to tortfeasors jointly liable with the Medical Center.

Here, the defendants in this case did not contend that the defendant doctors were employees of the Medical Center, or that the defendant doctors held themselves out as agents of the Medical Center. As such, the Court found there would be no basis for joint liability with the Medical Center. The Court also relied on the fact that the injuries claimed in this action were different from those claimed against and settled with the Medical Center (as the lost crown and broken teeth caused by the anesthesiologist, an employee of the Medical Center, were completely distinct from the damages claimed in this action). Accordingly, the Court held that the release of the Medical Center did not discharge the defendants in this case because they were not joint tortfeasors.

This case highlights the potential for multiple and distinct injuries stemming from the same event. As a result, it is important for defendants to draft releases with an eye towards covering all possible claims against all possible defendants. For more information about this case, please feel free to contact us, as we drafted the winning briefs.