• November 13, 2009

Farmers bought a “pneumatic grain-moving system” manufactured by Defendant Sukup and sold by Defendant dealer Superior. Apparently the system worked a little too well, going at such a high rate of speed that it damaged the grain, notwithstanding efforts by Superior to help Farmers get the system to work correctly.

Farmers litigated and settled with the seller/dealer, Defendant Superior.  Farmer then sued manufacturer, Defendant Sukup, who, in turn, argued that Farmers had already settled their claims and could not pursue their claim against Sukup.  At the district court, Defendant Sukup sought and won summary judgment based on the Farmer’s settlement with Superior.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, finding the relevant inquiry to be (1) the intent of the settling parties, and (2) whether the settling plaintiff was fully compensated, and finding that the district court erred on both parts of the analysis.

The Minnesota Supreme Court was extremely skeptical of the appellant, Sukup’s, argument.  It is rare to see an appeal whose outcome is so easy to predict.  Sukup will lose; the Court of Appeals will be affirmed.

The Court emphasized they saw nothing “to evidence any intent to release Sukup.”  “There is no release here. There is a stipulation of dismissal with consideration,” Chief Judge Magnuson pointed out.  Magnuson also asked, “Why doesn’t Hart v. Cessna control this case?”  In that case, a second case against a second defendant was allowed to go forward for a trial on its portion of liability after plaintiff lost in a case against the first defendant.  Sukup counsel had no response other than to suggest that, as a matter of policy, such law is bad.

Justice Gildea pointed out that Superior could have, at least in theory, obtained a general release and that would have inured to Sukup’s benefit.  But it did not.  End of story.

Question: Why did the Minnesota Supreme Court grant the petition for a writ of certiorari?

Next question: on remand, can the plaintiffs seek their entire damages against Sukup?  Predictably, plaintiffs counsel argues that plaintiffs should be able to get the full measure of their damages from Sukup.  If Sukup is liable for more than its share, plaintiffs’ counsel argues, it can go after Superior for contribution.  This issue is as predictable as the first one; on this aspect of the appeal, plaintiffs will lose.  Plaintiffs will not be able to recover from Sukup for liability assigned by the jury in the Sukup trial to Superior.  Comments by the Court (and counsels’ unpersuasive responses) made both of these outcomes fairly clear.  (Plaintiffs’ argument on the second issue: if the court were to rule that Sukup could not get contribution from Superior, then the Court will have devised a judicially crafted Pierringer release when Superior did not negotiate one or buy it in the underlying mediated settlement.  A Pierringer release, however, is as much if not more for the benefit of the settling plaintiff rather than the settling defendant, originally being a structure of settlement to prevent losing a claim against one joint tort-feasor when settling with another.)

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