California Landmark Cases and Law Regarding Releases

A release has been defined as the abandonment, relinquishment, or giving up of a right or claim to the person against whom it might have been demanded or enforced. (Pellett v. Sonotone Corp. (1945) 26 Cal.2d 705, 711.) "In general, a written release extinguishes any obligation covered by the release's terms, provided it has not been obtained by fraud, deception, misrepresentation, duress, or undue influence. ' "The general rule is that when a person with the capacity of reading and understanding an instrument signs it, he is, in the absence of fraud and imposition, bound by its contents, and is estopped from saying that its provisions are contrary to his intentions or understanding . . . ." ' " (Skrbina v. Fleming Companies (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1353, 1366-1367.) The terms of a release must be clear, unambiguous, and explicit in setting forth to an ordinary person untrained in the law that the intent and effect of the document is to release one party's claims, and to indemnify another party from and against any liability to others that may occur in the future as a proximate cause of one's negligence. (Ferrell v. Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd. (1983) 147 Cal.App.3d 309, 318.) Where settlement documents contain the language of Civil Code section 1542, such language "establishes unambiguously the parties' intent that the release cover possible civil claims." (Jefferson v. Department of Youth Authority (2002) 28 Cal.4th 299, 307.) Section 1542 provides: "A general release does not extend to claims which the creditor does not know or suspect to exist in his or her favor at the time of executing the release, which if known by him or her must have materially affected his or her settlement with the debtor." Ordinarily, "a releaser who has no disability preventing him from reading the release is bound by its clear provisions." (DuBois v. Sparrow (1979) 92 Cal.App.3d 290, 298.) However, if the releaser is "under a misapprehension, not due to his own neglect, as to the nature or scope of the release, and if this misapprehension was induced by the misconduct of the releasee, then the release, regardless of how comprehensively worded, is binding only to the extent actually intended by the releaser." (Casey v. Proctor (1963) 59 Cal.2d 97, 103.)