• The Supreme Judicial Court in a Split Decision Interprets the Language of a Release
  • June 10, 2003 | Author: Melissa Hegger Shea
  • Law Firm: Donovan Hatem LLP - Boston Office
  • In the August 2002 issue of this Reporter, we reported on the Appeals Court decision reversing summary judgment in favor of a physician on the basis of a release in LeBlanc v. Friedman, 53 Mass. App. Ct. 697 (2002). On January 29, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") affirmed the Appeals Court's decision, although on different grounds. LeBlanc v. Friedman, 2003 Mass. LEXIS 102, The SJC ruled in LeBlanc that repeated references in a release to a single incident transformed what appeared to be a general release into a limited release.

    In LeBlanc, the defendant treated the plaintiff for endometriosis. On March 16, 1992, the defendant performed a laparoscopy on the plaintiff to confirm the existence of endometriosis. During the procedure, the defendant failed to detect the plaintiff's left ovary, which a prior ultrasound showed was smaller than the right ovary, and concluded that the plaintiff was born without her left ovary.

    During the laparoscopy, the defendant neglected to remove a surgical instrument from the plaintiff's abdomen. On June 3, 1992, the defendant performed a hysterectomy on the plaintiff, again failing to notice, or remove, the left ovary.

    After her hysterectomy, the plaintiff was contacted by an insurance adjuster for the purpose of settling any possible claims the plaintiff may have had in connection with the surgical instrument that the defendant left inside her during the laparoscopy. Without consulting an attorney, the plaintiff executed a release of the defendant, another doctor involved in the laparoscopy, the hospital where the procedure was performed, and the manufacturer of the medical instrument in consideration of $7,000. The release did not specifically mention the medical instrument being left in the plaintiff's abdomen, but repeatedly referred to the care and treatment that the plaintiff received on March 16, the date of the laparoscopy.

    Approximately two years after the hysterectomy, the plaintiff was hospitalized for abdominal pain. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that she still had her left ovary. The plaintiff then filed suit against the defendant for medical malpractice based on his failure to detect and remove the ovary.

    The Superior Court allowed the defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff executed a general release which barred all of the claims asserted by the plaintiff. Relying on LaFleur v. C.C. Pierce Co., 398 Mass. 254, 257-262 (1986), the Appeals Court reversed, holding that the release may have been the product of mutual mistake in light of the fact that neither party anticipated the injury for which the plaintiff filed claim, i.e. the existence of her left ovary.

    The SJC ruled that mutual mistake did not apply because the subjective beliefs of the parties as to whether the release covered the unknown injury was irrelevant considering that the release expressly discharged the defendant for injuries "both known and unknown," including "injuries currently existing but unknown to either or both of the parties." LeBlanc at *10-*11. The SJC distinguished LaFleur, because, in that case, the release did not mention unknown injuries. LeBlanc at *10.

    The SJC held that the "pivotal" question was whether the release covered all unknown injuries which resulted from the defendant's care of the plaintiff or just those associated with the medical instrument incident. LeBlanc at *11. The SJC held that, while the release did contain some general release language, referring repeatedly to "all claims" that the plaintiff may have had against the defendant, it also contained limiting language. LeBlanc at *12. The SJC emphasized that each paragraph of the release referred back to a phrase in the first paragraph that released the defendant "from all claims ... resulting from care and treatment rendered to [the plaintiff] on or about March 16, 1992," the date of the laparoscopy. LeBlanc at *12-*13. The SJC also placed great emphasis on the fact that the paragraph releasing the defendant from claims for "unknown" injuries "does so for such claims which 'may hereafter in anyway grow out of or be connected with said care and treatment [or] its results,' " the "care and treatment" again referring back to the date of the laparoscopy. LeBlanc at *13. The SJC therefore concluded that the release covered only injuries stemming from the March 16 procedure. LeBlanc at *13-*14. As the plaintiff also claimed injuries resulting from the hysterectomy, which occurred after the laparoscopy, the SJC held that these claims could go forward because they were not covered by the release. LeBlanc at *16-*17.

    Justice Cowin, joined by Justice Sosman dissented, concluding that there was no question that the plaintiff executed a general release and noting that "general releases normally include a number of provisions specifically releasing particular claims." LeBlanc Dissent at *17. Justice Cowin stated that, while the release highlights certain included claims, it does not make any exceptions and is therefore not a limited release. LeBlanc Dissent at *19. Justice Cowin concluded her dissent by stating that: "The court, in order to avoid what it apparently perceives as a harsh result, reads limits into a release that contains none. This is an example of a hard case making bad law." LeBlanc Dissent at *22.

    The lesson to be learned from this case is, when drafting the language of a release that includes reference to a particular incident, be sure to include language that unambiguously states that the release is also applicable to all claims between the parties, whether arising before or after the incident described. In LeBlanc, if the language released the defendant from all claims arising out of his care of the plaintiff, both before and after the laparoscopy, instead of continually referring back to the date of the laparoscopy, the SJC presumably would have found that the release barred the plaintiff's claim.