W.Va. SC: Seat belt maker must pay claimant

Steve Korris Jun. 23, 2011, 11:39am

Margaret Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) -- Seat belt maker Autoliv must pay a driver's estate $85,000 to make up for a Chrysler check that bounced, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled on June 17.

Autoliv claimed it honored a $150,000 settlement by paying $65,000 to the estate of Elgene Phillips Jr., but the justices disagreed.

"In this case, there is no evidence that the petitioner agreed to accept $65,000 rather than $150,000," they wrote in an unsigned opinion.

"It is clear that the petitioner believed that she was receiving $150,000 rather than $65,000 from Autoliv and an $85,000 bad check from Chrysler," they wrote.

They reversed Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, who denied a motion to compel Autoliv to pay estate administrator Shelia Haynes what Chrysler couldn't pay.

Bailey ruled that the doctrine of accord and satisfaction barred the claim as soon as Haynes signed Autoliv's check.

Phillips died in 2006, near Sissonville, when his Dodge Ram truck slid off a wet road, crashed through a guard rail, and rolled over.

The Justices wrote that passenger Gloria Phillips sustained minor injuries, though they didn't identify their relationship.

Haynes sued Chrysler and Autoliv, claiming the accident caused the belt to unlatch.

Gloria Phillips testified that she specifically recalled his belt was secured.

She testified that prior to the wreck, she bought groceries while he waited in the truck.

She testified that when she climbed back in, he still had his belt on.

Plaintiff expert William Muzzy opined that Phillips would not have sustained fatal injuries if his belt had remained latched.

In 2009, mediation resulted in settlement.

Haynes received two checks and deposited them, but the bigger check bounced because Chrysler had declared bankruptcy.

Haynes sought relief from Bailey, but Bailey held she knew each defendant would contribute a specific amount and the two payments would equal $150,000.

On appeal, Haynes claimed neither defendant represented to her or Bailey that there were two separate settlements.

She argued that accord and satisfaction requires full performance of the terms of a compromise.

Autoliv argued that all parties understood it tendered $65,000 in full settlement of Haynes's claims and that she cashed the check with full knowledge.

The Court found nothing in the settlement apportioning the $150,000.

It wrote that if defendants had intended to divide responsibility, they could easily have done so.

"Neither Autoliv nor Chrysler did so and now Autoliv is bound by the underlying agreement," the justices wrote.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Justices Menis Ketchum and Robin Davis delivered the opinion.

Justice Brent Benjamin reserved the right to file a concurring opinion.

Justice Thomas McHugh disqualified himself and didn't participate.

Charles Love and Christopher Brinkley, of the Masters Law Firm in Charleston, represented Haynes.

Philip Combs and Debra Price, of Allen Guthrie and Thomas in Charleston, represented Autoliv.

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