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Zaldivar v. Prickett

Supreme Court of Georgia

July 6, 2015

ZALDIVAR
v.
PRICKETT et al

Page 689

Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision by the court.

BLACKWELL, Justice. All the Justices concur, except Benham, J., who dissents.

OPINION

Page 690

Blackwell, Justice.

Daniel Prickett sued Imelda Zaldivar to recover money damages for injuries that he allegedly sustained in an October 2009 vehicular collision.[1] Prickett and Zaldivar each blames the other for the collision,[2] and Zaldivar also points a finger at Overhead Door Company, which is not a party to the lawsuit. Prickett was employed by Overhead Door, and at the time of the collision, he was driving a truck that Overhead Door had provided to him in connection with his employment. According to Zaldivar, Overhead Door was negligent to have entrusted Prickett with a company truck, and for that reason, it too should bear some of the responsibility for any injuries that he sustained.

Commonly known as the " apportionment statute," OCGA § 51-12-33 requires the trier of fact in some cases to divide responsibility for an injury among all of those who " contributed to" it -- parties and nonparties alike -- according to their respective shares of the combined " fault" that produced the injury. The statute then requires the trier of fact to apportion any award of damages among the defendants with liability, limiting the liability of each to the extent to which she was assigned responsibility. Zaldivar gave notice under the apportionment statute that she intended to ask the trier of fact in this case to assign some responsibility to Overhead Door for any injuries that Prickett may have sustained in the collision. In response, Prickett filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that OCGA § 51-12-33 does not require any assignment of responsibility to Overhead Door. The statute, Prickett argued, permits attributing " fault" to a nonparty only to the extent that the nonparty committed a tort that was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. And negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle or other instrumentality never can be a proximate cause of an injury to the person to whom the instrumentality was entrusted, Prickett added, citing Ridgeway v. Whisman, 210 Ga.App. 169

Page 691

(435 S.E.2d 624) (1993), a case in which the Court of Appeals suggested just that. Zaldivar noted, on the other hand, that OCGA § 51-12-33 (c) clearly contemplates an assignment of " fault" to nonparties without liability to the plaintiff in tort, and so, she said, the statute cannot be properly understood to limit apportionment involving nonparties to cases in which it can be shown that a nonparty committed a tort that was a proximate cause of the injury in question.

The trial court granted the motion for partial summary judgment, agreeing with Prickett about the meaning of the apportionment statute, and following Ridgeway to conclude that negligent entrustment on the part of Overhead Door could not possibly have been a proximate cause of any injuries that Prickett sustained. Zaldivar appealed, and in a split decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed. See Zaldivar v. Prickett, 328 Ga.App. 359 (762 S.E.2d 166) (2014). The majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with Prickett about the meaning of the statute, see id. at 361-362, and it adhered to its earlier decision in Ridgeway with respect to proximate cause. See id. at 362. Judge Branch dissented, and like Zaldivar, she urged that assignment of fault to a nonparty does not require that the nonparty itself have liability in tort for the injury to the plaintiff. See id. at 364-365 (Branch, J., dissenting). Moreover, Judge Branch said, if Overhead Door negligently entrusted Prickett with a company truck, its negligent entrustment could be a proximate cause of his injuries, even if Overhead Door might avoid liability to Prickett upon some other ground. Although she did not say so, Judge Branch implied that Ridgeway was wrong about proximate cause. See id. at 366 (Branch, J., dissenting).

We issued a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. We now conclude that the majority of the Court of Appeals correctly understood OCGA § 51-12-33 to require the trier of fact to consider the " fault" of a nonparty only when the nonparty is shown to have committed a tort against the plaintiff that was a proximate cause of his injury. We also conclude, however, that negligent entrustment of an instrumentality can be a proximate cause of an injury to the person to whom the instrumentality was entrusted, and the majority of the Court of Appeals erred when it relied on statements in Ridgeway to the contrary. We disapprove Ridgeway to the extent that it suggests that negligent entrustment never can be a proximate cause of an injury to the person entrusted, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

1. We address first what is meant by OCGA § 51-12-33 when it speaks of the " fault" of one who " contributes to" an injury, especially as it concerns nonparties. And to begin, we recall the familiar and settled principles that inform our consideration of statutory meaning. As we recently acknowledged, " [a] statute draws its meaning ... from its text." Chan v. Ellis, 296 Ga. 838, 839 (1) (770 S.E.2d 851) (2015) (citation omitted). " When we consider the meaning of a statute, we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant," Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172 (1) (a) (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted), and so, " we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would." FDIC v. Loudermilk, 295 Ga. 579, 588 (2) (761 S.E.2d 332) (2014) (citation and punctuation omitted). " The common and customary usages of the words are important, but so is their context." Chan, 296 Ga. at 839 (1) (citations omitted). " For context, we may look to other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law -- constitutional, statutory, and common law alike -- that forms the legal background of the statutory provision in question." May v. State, 295 Ga. 388, 391-392 (761 S.E.2d 38) (2014) (citations omitted). With these principles in mind, we turn now to the statutory text in question.

We are principally concerned here with OCGA § 51-12-33 (c), which directs the trier of fact in cases to which the apportionment statute applies to " consider the fault of all persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages." This provision, however, must be read in the context of the

Page 692

other provisions of the apportionment statute. See May, 295 Ga. at 391-392. The statute sets up a comprehensive process for the apportionment of damages according to relative " fault," of which subsection (c) is only a part. See Couch v. Red Roof Inns, Inc., 291 Ga. 359, 360-361 (1) (729 S.E.2d 378) (2012). Moreover, other provisions of the statute also use the term " fault," and those provisions especially inform our consideration of what is meant by " fault" in subsection (c). After all, " there is a natural presumption that identical words used in different parts of the same act are intended to have the same meaning." Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433 (52 S.Ct. 607, 76 L.Ed. 1204) (1932) (citation omitted). For these reasons, it is important to consider the apportionment statute as a whole.

In its entirety, the statute provides:

(a) Where an action is brought against one or more persons for injury to person or property and the plaintiff is to some degree responsible for the injury or damages claimed, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall determine the percentage of fault of the plaintiff and the judge shall reduce the amount of damages otherwise awarded to the plaintiff in proportion to his or her percentage of fault.
(b) Where an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall after a reduction of damages pursuant to subsection (a) of this Code section, if any, apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person. Damages apportioned by the trier of fact as provided in this Code section shall be the liability of each person against whom they are awarded, shall not be a joint liability among the persons liable, and shall not be subject to any right of contribution.
(c) In assessing percentages of fault, the trier of fact shall consider the fault of all persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages, regardless of whether the person or entity was, or could have been, named as a party to the suit.
(d) (1) Negligence or fault of a nonparty shall be considered if the plaintiff entered into a settlement agreement with the nonparty or if a defending party gives notice not later than 120 days prior to the date of trial that a nonparty was wholly or partially at fault.
(2) The notice shall be given by filing a pleading in the action designating the nonparty and setting forth the nonparty's name and last known address, or the best identification of the nonparty which is possible under the circumstances, together with a brief statement of the basis for believing the nonparty to be at fault.
(e) Nothing in this Code section shall eliminate or diminish any defenses or immunities which currently exist, except as ...

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