Joint and Several Liability: My accident was caused by more than one person, who do I sue and who do I settle with?

May 14th, 2019
By Brett Wieburg

Typically, where more than one party is responsible for causing or contributing to another’s injuries and damages, the trier of fact, be that a judge or jury, will determine the percentage of total fault which is attributable to every entity which caused the claimant’s damages. The sum of the percentages of the total fault attributed to at-fault entities shall equal one hundred percent.  RCW 4.22.070.  Judgment is therefore, entered in an amount which represents a party’s proportional share of the injured party’s total damages.

However, there is a very large and critical exception to the foregoing rule.  If the trier of fact determines that the injured party was not at fault, the defendants against whom judgment is entered will be held “jointly and severally liable” for the sum of their proportionate shares of the claimant’s total damages.  RCW 4.22.070(1)(b).   This means that if one of the defendants is uninsured, underinsured, or does not have enough assets to pay his or her proportionate share of the damages, the other defendant or defendants would be responsible for paying the entire judgment.  In other words, a defendant who is determined to be only one percent at fault could be on the hook for paying the entire judgment if his fellow defendant or defendants do not have enough insurance coverage or funds to pay their proportionate share.

For example, let’s assume that Amy was a passenger in her friend, Bob’s, car.  Bob, after stopping at a red light, starts to make a right turn.  Bob is a generally careful driver, but if he had been paying a bit more attention, he would have seen Charlie, who was traveling well in excess of the speed limit, zipping through the intersection.  Charlie collides with Amy and Bob’s car and Amy is injured.  Amy, a passenger is clearly fault free.  At trial, a jury decides that Bob was one-percent at fault and Charlie is ninety-nine percent at fault.    Unfortunately, Charlie has no insurance coverage and no assets.  Who pays for Amy’s injuries?

Because Amy did not cause or contribute to her own injuries and is therefore “fault free”, and because there are two or more defendants against whom judgment can be entered, both Bob and Charlie are equally on the hook for the entire judgment.  This is known as joint and several liability.   Because Charlie has no ability to compensate Amy, Bob, even though he played only a small role in causing the collision, must pay the entire judgment.

Some people – especially those in Bob’s shoes – question whether the foregoing outcome is fair or just.  However, without the rule of joint and several liability, Amy would be doubly injured.  Without joint and several liability, she would not only go without compensation for her pain and suffering, but she would also have to pay virtually all of her own medical bills.  Depending on Amy’s financial situation, this could be devastating.  Therefore, Washington State adopted joint and several liability.  In Washington State, an innocent victim’s compensation matters more than limiting the damages either negligent party pays.

People who have been seriously injured in an accident that is caused by more than one person or entity, must answer important legal questions about the share of damages that may be apportioned to each negligent party.  Generally, the most important thing to do is to preserve joint and several liability to make sure that an injured person is fully compensated.

Let’s revisit the example above.   Let’s assume that Amy is in financial distress and needs funds quickly.    If Amy negotiates a nominal settlement with Charlie leaving Bob the sole defendant in her lawsuit, she would lose joint and several liability. By settling with Charlie, Amy removes him as a party against whom judgment could be entered.  This means that Amy’s sole source of compensation is Bob who was found to be only one-percent at fault.   By settling with Charlie, Amy has now limited her available compensation to one-percent of her total damages.

There are many important decisions which should be addressed by an experienced and competent attorney.  It is very easy to make a mistake, and as the foregoing example illustrates, the consequences of getting it wrong can be devastating.   We have over twenty-five years of experience successfully navigating issues like these and would be happy to help you.