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Knell v. Feltman - 85 U.S. App. D.C. 22, 174 F.2d 662 (1949)

Rule:

When a tort is committed by the concurrent negligence of two or more persons who are not intentional wrongdoers, contribution should be enforced; a joint judgment against such tort-feasors is not a prerequisite to contribution between them, and it is immaterial whether they were, or any of them was, personally negligent.

Facts:

Evelyn Langland and her husband were guest passengers in an automobile owned and operated by Kenneth E. Knell. The car in which they were riding collided with a taxicab owned by Ralph L. Feltman and operated by his employee, as a result of which Mrs. Langland was seriously injured. She and her husband sued Feltman to recover damages. After answering, Feltman filed a third-party complaint against Knell, asserting the collision was caused by the contributing or sole negligence of Knell. However, Knell denied this. The court held that contribution was enforceable regarding a tort committed by the concurrent negligence of two or more persons who were not intentional wrongdoers, that judgment against both was not a prerequisite, and that the personal negligence of each was immaterial. 

Issue:

Was the District of Columbia correct in stating that there can be no contribution between concurrent tort-feasors unless the plaintiff previously has obtained a judgment against both, and unless both were 'vicariously' negligent, i.e., liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court concluded that when a tort is committed by the concurrent negligence of two or more persons who are not intentional wrongdoers, contribution should be enforced; that a joint judgment against such tort-feasors is not a prerequisite to contribution between them, and it is immaterial whether they were, or any of them was, personally negligent. In other words, we adopt for the District of Columbia, without exception or reservation.

Moreover, the court stated that only a plaintiff or other claimant can be guilty of what is technically called contributory negligence. It follows that Knell's negligence cannot be classified as such as far as the Langlands are concerned. The question of negligence vel non on the part of Knell toward them was submitted to the jury when the court asked, 'was * * * Knell, negligent, and if so, was his negligence the sole or a contributing cause of the collision * * * ?' The jury's answer was 'Contributing.' This was not a finding of technical contributory negligence, except with respect to Knell's cross-claim against Feltman; it was a verdict that Knell's tortious act concurred with that of Feltman to cause Mrs. Langland's injuries. Thus the common liability of Knell and Fetlman for Mrs. Langland's hurts was established, as was Knell's liability to Feltman for one-half the damages awarded to the Langlands and paid by Feltman.

It is true that Feltman charged the Langlands with contributory negligence, although Knell did not. But no evidence of such negligence on their part has been pointed out by the parties, so the court assumed that there was none.

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