Be Wary of the Release Agreements You Sign as Part of Your California Personal Injury Case

Suffering serious injuries in an auto accident caused by someone else can leave you with many major decisions to weigh. If you decide to settle, the other side will likely demand that you sign a release document as part of the settlement. Achieving a clear understanding of the precise boundaries of that release is imperative, since a broad release may potentially impair your ability to recover from others responsible for your injuries. Such was the case for a motorcyclist who recently lost his appeal before the California Court of Appeal.

The motorcyclist, Ronald Lee Cline, was severely injured in a collision with a car driven by Colby Homuth. Homuth, who had only a provisional driver’s license, was executing a turn onto a road in Calaveras County when Cline’s motorcycle crashed into the rear of his car. The accident report stated that Homuth was to blame for the accident.

The Homuth family’s auto insurer and the motorcyclist reached a settlement in the amount of $100,000. In exchange, the insurer demanded that Cline sign a settlement agreement that contained a release of all claims. The release, which the insurer’s claims representative described as “boilerplate,” stated the motorcyclist surrendered all potential legal claims against the teen driver, his parents, “and any other person, corporation, association or partnership responsible in any manner or degree for injuries.”

The wrinkle in Cline’s case was that the supervising driver in the car with the teenager was neither of the parents, but rather the teen’s grandmother, Berniece Homuth. After Cline had signed the settlement and release, he sued the grandmother. At trial, the grandmother argued that the release prevented Cline from recovering against her. The trial court ruled in Homuth’s favor, and Cline appealed.

Cline’s appeal also met with an unsuccessful outcome. The motorcyclist argued that the release’s failure to name the grandmother explicitly was proof that it did not extend to cover her. Both the trial court and the appeals court, however, credited the testimony of the insurer’s claims representative, who explained that the release, which the insurance company had prepared, named only the teen and his parents because they were the only persons the company insured, and therefore the only ones the company had a duty to protect. The claims rep also stated that the “any other person” language was standard in the industry and extended to all other persons. The mere fact that the release included the teen and the parents by name did not mean that the grandmother was excluded simply because it did not explicitly name her.

Also working against Cline was his side’s failure to communicate. Cline argued that he did not intend to release the grandmother and would not have signed if the document had included her by name. However, at no point did the motorcyclist or his attorney communicate this intent with the insurance company’s claims representative or anyone else on the Homuths’ side. “This evidence of undisclosed subjective intent of Cline and his attorney is insufficient to establish that the parties intended that Homuth be excluded from the release,” the court concluded.

Settlements are an important way of resolving some auto injury cases, potentially allowing injured people to receive compensation they deserve with greater speed and less stress than a trial. In other cases, though, settling is not the best option. For advice and representation on how to proceed with your auto injury case, contact the Oakland motorcycle accident attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury attorneys have helped many people hurt by the negligence of others and are equipped to counsel and advocate for you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Policy Language Stops California Widow’s Claim Against Insurer in Fatal Drunk Driving Crash, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, March 31, 2015

California Appellate Court Wrong for Allowing Prejudicial Evidence of Crash Victim’s Marijuana Use, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2014

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