Does a Release from Responsibility for a Work Injury Apply to Future Health Problems ?
In Martin v. Donahue, 698 A.2d 614 (Pa. Super. 1997), petition for allowance of appeal denied, 555 Pa. 745, 725 A.2d 1222 (1998) John Martin (Martin) had been injured at work when he fell from a scaffold at a construction site. Martin was taken to a hospital where he was treated.
He was told to follow up with an orthopedic specialist.
John R. Donahue, M.D. (Dr. Donahue) treated Martin and performed arthroscopic surgery.
Martin's employer asserted that Martin could not receive workers' compensation benefits because he was an independent contractor.
Martin filed a claim against the contractor for whom he worked and the general contractor who hired the contractor.
Martin settled with the two contractors for $ 36,000 and released them from any further responsibility for damages that might occur as a result of his injuries.
The release specifically named the two contractors and any other party who might have been responsible for the fall.
Under the release Martin agreed to forfeit his right to pursue monetary damages for any future unexpected consequences, known or unknown, which he might suffer for any medical treatment he might need to pursue as a result of the accident.
Martin and his wife filed a medical malpractice action against Dr. Donahue and alleged that the surgery performed by Dr. Donahue was unnecessary and improperly performed and that Dr. Donahue failed to evaluate and treat Martin properly.
Dr. Donahue moved for summary judgment on the basis that the release was intended to discharge liability for all parties.
The Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County denied the motion for summary judgment and certified the matter for appeal. Dr. Donahue appealed to the Superior Court. Martin, 698 A.2d at 615-616.
Dr. Donahue argued that the plain meaning of the release discharged all claims stemming from the accident pursuant to Buttermore. the Superior Court disagreed and affirmed:
Herein, with selectively chosen deletions, appellant Dr. Donahue attempts to persuade the casual observer that his claim is righteous based upon Buttermore.
However, a reading of the full text of the release illuminates the fallacy of appellant's Dr. Donahue position, since the language of the document limited the discharge of liability to named parties. Buttermore easily is distinguished as there was no limiting language.
A review of the facts reveals that it mirrors the release we evaluated in Harrity v. Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital 439 Pa. Super. 10, 653 A.2d 5 (Pa. Super. 1994), . . . (appellant released persons and all entities involved in a specific suit filed by victim; while language on its face was specific, affidavit of attorney who drafted document was permitted and indicated that intent of document was to release only parties named in suit).
Herein, the release clearly states that it pertains to any and all entities who are or may be determined to be liable for 'the claims referred to In the matter of Martin v. Heydt Plaster and Stucco, Inc., et al Chester County Court of Common Pleas, No. 91-01797.'
This language limits the long arm of this release to the parties named in the particular lawsuit which arose from appellee's Martin fall. As there can be no argument that appellant Dr. Donahue was not a named party to that suit, the release does not apply to him.
Further, it is obvious that the language pertaining to future medical treatment, likewise, is specific.
First, the document acknowledges the possibility of future health problems which might be associated with the fall, then it seeks to limit the liability of the releasees by defining the context of medical injury to 'serious or unexpected consequences which might result from the present injuries, known or unknown, from said incident, accident or medical treatment.'
Clearly, this language was designed to discharge the named releasees from liability for accidental or medical injuries Mr. Martin might sustain as a result of his fall.
Specifically, the named releasees would not be liable for appellant's Dr. Donahue alleged negligence. Therefore, in light of the holding in Harrity v. Medical College of Pennsylvania, supra, it is clear from the plain meaning of the limiting language in the document that appellant Dr. Donahue was not included as a party to the release.
Appellant Dr. Donahue argues that the trial court erred when it considered extraneous evidence of intent.
While it is clear to this Court that the language of the release did not discharge appellant Dr. Donahue from liability, appellant Dr. Donahue, nonetheless, urged the hearing court to adopt his interpretation.
Therefore, in order to ascertain the intent of the parties, the court deemed it necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the release, the situation of the parties, and the nature of the context of the agreement. . . . It was reasonable for the court to look for sources other than the contract for clarification.
The court did not abuse its discretion in allowing affidavit and deposition testimony of the attorneys who drafted the releases. Martin, 698 A.2d at 617.