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Can fault be apportioned to a person who is not a party?

In the legal system, even the most basic of factual circumstances can lead to complicated legal issues that have to be resolved in court. What can seem like a basic car crash, for example, may involve several questions of liability as Pottsville residents attempt to sort out who is to blame for the incident.

Recently, this blog discussed the concept of comparative negligence, which is one of these issues. Under comparative negligence, liability can be apportioned among several different parties, including multiple defendants or even the plaintiff, if the plaintiff was partially at fault for the accident. The apportionment of fault can impact the plaintiff’s ability to collect compensation, either in terms of the amount of damages that are ultimately awarded in the case, or in terms of who the damages may be collected from after a finding of liability.

Adding to the confusion are cases in which responsibility for the incident lies with individuals or entities who are not even a party to the lawsuit. For example, a defendant may have been sued originally in the case, but that defendant may have entered into a settlement agreement with the plaintiff for that defendant’s share of responsibility in the matter. This can produce issues with the remaining defendants as to how fault should be apportioned between them at trial.

Typically, the trier of fact, meaning the judge or jury who hears the case, may determine questions of liability for a defendant who entered into a release with the plaintiff and who is not a party. This is not always the case, such as employers who are granted immunity from suit under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

There are other issues that must be considered as well, however, including rules of evidence that govern the admissibility of evidence of settlements or releases. Accordingly, each case needs to be examined on its own circumstances to determine what effect it may have if a non-party is considered to be at fault in the case.

Source: Pennsylvania General Assembly, “7102. Comparative negligence,” accessed on Feb. 13, 2016