Release in Probate Court Barred Later Claims Against Uninsured Motorist Insurer

When an ATV accident plaintiff executed a release of her claim against the personal representative of the estate and filed that release in probate court, that release “served to release [her uninsured motorist insurance carrier] from any liability arising from [plaintiff’s] personal injury claim stemming from the ATV accident.”

In Johanssen v. Sharber, No. M2017-00639-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2018), plaintiff was injured in an ATV accident. The driver of the ATV died, and plaintiff filed a tort claim in circuit court against the personal representative of the driver’s estate. Plaintiff’s uninsured motorist carrier, GEICO, was also served and joined as a party. Plaintiff also filed a claim against the estate in probate court “for medical bills and personal injury.”

While the circuit court case was pending, plaintiff “executed a release of claim in the Probate Court without GEICO’s consent.” The release stated:

The undersigned, [plaintiff], acknowledges full and complete satisfaction of the claim filed against the Estate and releases the Personal Representative from any further liability on the claim of $150,000.00 that the undersigned filed against the Estate.

Based on this release, GEICO moved for summary judgment in the circuit court, arguing that “the release of claim served to settle [plaintiff’s] tort claims and extinguished GEICO’s subrogation rights releasing GEICO from any liability to [plaintiff] under the insurance policy.” The trial court agreed, granting summary judgment to GEICO, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

When analyzing the release relevant to this case, the Court stated that “[a] release is a contract and the rules and construction applied to contracts are used in construing a release.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Plaintiff asserted that neither she nor the personal representative “ever intended to settle the tort claim,” but the Court found:

[T]he language of the release is unambiguous. [Plaintiff] not only acknowledged complete and full satisfaction of the claim for medical bills and personal injury filed against the Estate, she released the Personal Representative from any further liability on the claim of $150,000.00. [Plaintiff] never has explained fully exactly what the parties were intending to do if not resolve the tort claim. It appears, rather, that [plaintiff] simply now regrets having signed the release. In light of the release’s unambiguous language and the lack of surrounding circumstances that would serve to invalidate the agreement, we see no justification for exploring further the parties’ intent.

Plaintiff presented two additional arguments against application of the release in the tort case, both of which the Court quickly rejected. First, plaintiff argued that the defendant in this case was Leon Sharber (the actual name of the personal representative) instead of the Estate of Lee Martin Sharber. The Court pointed out, though, that the release “specifically released both the Personal Representative as well as the Estate,” and that any tort recovery would have been from the estate, not Leon Sharber individually. Second, plaintiff argued that the probate court had no jurisdiction to dispose of a tort claim. The Court of Appeals held that, while the probate court does not have tort jurisdiction, what happened here was that “[t]he Probate Court simply accepted the filing of the release of claim regarding the tort action,” and it “did not attempt to adjudicate the tort claim itself.”

Because plaintiff’s arguments for invalidating the release were rejected, summary judgment for GEICO was affirmed.

The lesson here for plaintiffs is that anything you sign and file in one case can clearly affect another. Be very aware of the possible implications of anything you sign, especially a release of any claims.