This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. sec. 480A.08, subd. 3 (1994).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Glenn L. Hodgin,
Audrey Marie Hodgin,
Natalie Marie Dudynsky, et al.,
Filed June 4, 1996
Dakota County District Court
File No. C9-95-6604
Mark H. Gruesner, Sharon L. Van Dyck, Schwebel, Goetz, Sieben & Moskal, 5120 IDS Center, Minneapolis, MN 55402-2246 (for Appellant)
Mary M. Kruse, P.O. Box 64885, St. Paul, MN 55164-0885 (for Respondents Dudynsky)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Randall, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant challenges the district court's summary judgment for respondents on his personal injury claim.
Appellant Glenn Hodgin and his wife Audrey Hodgin, who is not a party to this action, sustained injuries as a result of a car accident on April 24, 1991. In June 1993, they commenced a personal injury action against respondents, seeking compensation for Audrey's injuries and appellant's derivative loss of consortium claim. Prior to trial, the parties agreed to a settlement: Respondents agreed to pay appellant and his wife $70,000. In consideration for the payment, appellant and Audrey executed a release on May 26, 1994, agreeing to release "all claims arising from said accident" with the exception of "any no-fault or uninsured motorists benefits . . ."
In October 1994, appellant allegedly learned from his treating physician that the injury to his neck, as a result of the 1991 accident, was permanent. Shortly thereafter, and after payment of the $70,000 settlement and execution of the release, appellant brought this individual action against respondents for personal injuries. Respondents brought a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The court concluded that the prior release barred appellant from seeking further relief. After appellant's request for reconsideration was denied, and this appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
Summary judgment will be affirmed on appeal if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the trial court did not err in its application of the law. Betlach v. Wayzata Condominium, 281 N.W.2d 328, 330 (Minn. 1979).
The district court concluded that as a matter of law the release executed by appellant bars this action because the language unambiguously included all claims arising out of the 1991 accident. We agree.
The law encourages the settlement of disputes and generally presumes the validity of releases. Sorenson v. Coast-to-Coast Stores, Inc., 353 N.W.2d 666, 669 (Minn. App. 1984), review denied (Minn. Nov. 7, 1984). A claims release is a contract. Couillard v. Charles T. Miller Hosp., 253 Minn. 418, 426 n. 2, 92 N.W.2d 96, 101 n. 2 (1958). Contract interpretation is a legal question, requiring the court to "ascertain and give effect to the intention of the parties." Metropolitan Sports Facilities Comm'n v. General Mills, Inc., 470 N.W.2d 118, 122-23 (Minn. 1991) (citations omitted). An appellate court conducts a de novo review of the district court's interpretation of contract language. See Frost-Benco Elec. Ass'n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984) ("[A]n appellate court need not give deference to a trial court's decision on a legal issue.")
Generally the scope of a release agreement depends on the parties' intent. Clark v. Allstate Ins. Co., 405 N.W.2d 463, 465-66 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. July 9, 1987). If the contract's written terms are not ambiguous, then a court need look no further than the document itself to ascertain the parties' intent. Metropolitan Sports, 470 N.W.2d at 123. Cf. Turner v. Alpha Phi Sorority House, 276 N.W.2d 63, 66 (Minn. 1979) (holding that if contract language is ambiguous and its construction depends on extrinsic evidence, there is a question of fact for the jury).
A contract is ambiguous if its terms have no obvious meaning or are susceptible to more than one interpretation based on its language alone. In re Indenture of Trust, 437 N.W.2d 430, 435 (Minn. App. 1989), review denied (Minn. May 24, 1989). Whether a contract is ambiguous presents, in the first instance, a legal question for the court. Williams v. Harris, 518 N.W.2d 864, 867 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Sept. 28, 1994).
Here, the plain language of the agreement reserved no-fault and underinsured motorist claims, but released all other claims, including a claim for appellant's injuries. See Sorensen, 353 N.W.2d at 670 ("[T]he law presumes that parties to a release agreement intend what is expressed in a signed writing."). Paragraph 2 of the release provides that
I expressly intend and agree that this release applies to all of my claims arising from said accident, including . . . claims for known, unknown, latent, developed and undeveloped injuries; anticipated and unanticipated consequences, and known and unknown developments of any such injuries; and claims as respects the nature, extent and permanency of any of such injuries.
Paragraph 7, which was added by appellant and his wife, provides that "[t]his is not a release of any no-fault or underinsured motorist benefits which remain the obligation of The St. Paul Companies, claim . . ." Paragraph 1.a defines "claims" as including
demands, actions, and rights of action and also includes all claims which I now or hereafter may have arising out of, in consequence of, or on account of said incident.
This release was signed by both appellant and his wife and was notarized. Further, the record indicates that throughout the litigation, negotiation, and settlement appellant and his wife were represented by competent counsel. Appellant does not allege otherwise.
Appellant argues that the language of the release is ambiguous because paragraph 2 which speaks of "all claims" is inconsistent with the language of paragraph 4, which speaks of "disputed claims." Paragraph 4 of the release provides:
I acknowledge that said sum is paid in compromise and settlement of disputed claims, that payment thereof shall not be construed as an admission of any liability whatsoever by any of the parties herein released by whom liability is expressly denied.
When read in context, however, paragraph 2 concerns the scope of claims and injuries covered by the release, and paragraph 4 concerns the fact that the respondents do not admit liability and that the claims are disputed rather than admitted.
Appellant also argues that Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64 (8th Cir. 1994), supports his position. In Allison, Allison had signed a release in settlement of his personal injury lawsuit. Later, he sought to join his wife's personal injury lawsuit with a derivative claim for loss of consortium. The district court held that the release barred his claim.
The release at issue in Allison specifically contained language reserving a claim for loss of consortium. The release contained both general language ("Release of all claims" and "Full and Final Release") and specific language that "Mr. Allison expressly reserves his loss of consortium claim." The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district court erred in ignoring "the language limiting the scope of the release because it found that the limiting language was not clear and specific" under Missouri law. Id. at 67.
Here, unlike Allison, other than reserving the no-fault and underinsured motorist claims, there was no language in the release reserving a claim for his personal injuries. The fact that appellant did not anticipate every possible variation of a future claim for injuries when he released his claims is insufficient to overcome the plain language of the general release agreement. See Sorensen, 353 N.W.2d at 669 (a release agreement that discharges "any and all claims, demands, or causes of action" encompasses all known and unknown claims existing at the time of the release.) The release is not limited to known claims. There was no reservation of a potential claim for possible future physical injuries.
The language of the release is unambiguous. The district court did not err in refusing to consider extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent. The district court properly granted respondents summary judgment.