Law School Case Brief
Sitzes v. Anchor Motor Freight - 169 W. Va. 698, 289 S.E.2d 679 (1982)
The principles behind abolishing interspousal immunity are the plain meaning of W. Va. Code § 48-3-19, the Married Woman's Act, allows a married woman to sue or be sued as if she were single, and the existence of a general movement in all jurisdictions to abolish common law immunities, including interspousal immunity. The trend in West Virginia is decidedly in favor of the abolishment of common law immunities. For example, charitable immunity of hospitals was struck down, family immunity is limited to parent-child and husband-wife relationships, there is no common law governmental immunity for municipal corporations, and the doctrine of parental immunity is abrogated so as to permit an unemancipated minor child to sue for injuries received in a motor vehicle accident.
The decedent, Patricia Ann Roberson, was killed an automobile accident on Jan. 19, 1977. At the time, she was a passenger in a pick-up truck driven by her husband, James R. Roberson, which collided with a motor truck driven by Oswald R. Carter, an agent and employee of the defendant Anchor Motor Freight, Inc. ("Anchor"). The decedent was survived by her husband and her son, Joseph Eugene Roberson. Plaintiffs Arnold L. Sitzes and Edward L. Rucks, the administrators of the decedent's estate, filed a negligence action against Anchor in federal district court. Anchor filed a third-party complaint for contribution against Mr. Roberson. The court instructed the jury to assign percentages of fault to Anchor, as third-party plaintiff, and Mr. Roberson, as third-party defendant, if it found that both were negligent. Ultimately, the jury found that the accident was caused by the combined negligence of Anchor and Mr. Roberson and that the damages should be distributed 25 percent to Mr. Roberson and 75 percent to the decedent's son. The district court certified questions to the Supreme Court of West Virginia concerning retroactive application of the abolition of the doctrine of interspousal immunity and the effect of West Virginia's adoption of comparative negligence upon both the rules of contribution among joint tortfeasors and jury's distribution of damage award under the wrongful death statute.
Did the abolition of interspousal immunity apply retroactively?
The state supreme court ruled that the abolition of interspousal immunity was to be applied retroactively because the law of torts was not a traditionally settled area, there was a recognized trend to limit or abolish common law immunities, and the impact of retroactive application was not substantial as it would affect only a small number of cases. Thus, Anchor's third-party complaint was not barred by the doctrine of interspousal immunity. The court also ruled that Anchor, which was found liable for 70 percent of the negligence, could pursue its third-party action for contribution against Mr. Roberson, who was found to be only 30 percent at fault. However, the court ruled, there was no right of judgment set-off where, such as in the present action, the parties obtained counter judgments against each other and both parties were fully covered by liability insurance.
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