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Tiffin Motorhomes, Inc v. the Superior Court of

November 23, 2011

TIFFIN MOTORHOMES, INC., PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, RESPONDENT; CUMMINS, INC., REAL PARTY IN INTEREST.



ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS; petition for writ of mandate. John M. Pacheco, Judge. Petition granted. (Super.Ct.No. CIVDS1000916)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Codrington Acting P. J.

pub. order 12/20/11 (see end of opn.)

OPINION

INTRODUCTION

As our colleagues in Division Three of this court once remarked, "[i]t is hard to imagine another set of legal terms with more soporific effect than indemnity, subrogation, contribution, co-obligation and joint tortfeasorship. . . . Even lawyers find words like 'indemnity' and 'subrogation' ring of an obscure Martian dialect." (Herrick Corp. v. Canadian Ins. Co. (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 753, 756 (Herrick).) Fortunately for us, this case does not involve subrogation, but it otherwise includes the above-mentioned elements of perplexity and confusion.

In this case, we are asked to determine whether the manufacturer of a vehicle engine, who is sued on warranty grounds, may rely on Code of Civil Procedure section 877.6*fn1 to escape any non-contractual obligation to indemnify a co-defendant. We conclude that the statute does not apply in this situation and that the trial court therefore erred in granting real party in interest's motion for approval of a good faith settlement.*fn2

BRIEF STATEMENT OF FACTS

The underlying action was brought by plaintiffs Thomas and Debra Pigott against several defendants, alleging that a motor home or recreational vehicle purchased by plaintiffs suffered from various and rather vaguely described defects that were never satisfactorily repaired. Real party in interest Cummins, Inc. (Cummins) manufactured the engine of the vehicle; petitioner Tiffin Motorhomes, Inc. (Tiffin) manufactured the coach (the part of the vehicle intended for "human occupation"); and defendant Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation (Freightliner) manufactured the chassis.

Cummins filed a motion for order determining good faith settlement under section 877.6 in which it represented that it had settled with plaintiffs for $19,500. In a declaration, attorney Christian Scott explained that Cummins had been asked to service the engine on four occasions. First, it repaired an oil leak. Next, it replaced the engine. It then performed service related to a fuel line. Finally, a gasket was replaced to fix an oil leak. Cummins also pointed out that although the complaint appeared to focus on "engine overheating" as perhaps the primary issue making the vehicle undrivable, plaintiffs had never made a warranty claim or returned the vehicle to Cummins for service for this issue.*fn3

Petitioner Tiffin, joined by co-defendants La Mesa R.V. Center, Inc., HWH Corporation, Inc., and Gemb Lending, Inc.*fn4 opposed the motion on two grounds.*fn5 First, they argued that the settlement payment was inadequate in relation to Cummins's possible liability (not "in the ballpark"). Second, they argued that section 877.6 did not apply at all in this situation.

Petitioner pointed out that plaintiffs were seeking a base sum of over $622,000 (representing the overtime, financed, price of the vehicle) plus unspecified other damages, civil penalties, and attorney fees, costs and expenses.*fn6

The trial court agreed with Cummins and granted the motion. The effect of the ruling, of course, was to insulate Cummins from any potential obligations to its co-defendants in the nature of contribution or equitable indemnity based on comparative negligence or comparative fault. (§ 877.6, subd. (c); Fullerton Redevelopment Agency v. Southern California Gas Co. (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 428, 432.) Petitioner seeks review by way of a petition for writ of mandate, as expressly authorized by subdivision (e) of the statute.

DISCUSSION

Section 877.6, subdivision (a)(1), allows a motion to be made by "[a]ny party to an action in which it is alleged that two or more parties are joint tortfeasors or co-obligors on a contract debt." Subdivision (c) simply refers to "any other joint tortfeasor or co-obligor." Section 877, which sets out the substantive rule as to which section 877.6 prescribes the procedure, employs the terms "one or more of a number of tortfeasors claimed to be liable for the same tort, or to one or more other co-obligors mutually subject to contribution rights."*fn7 Despite the slight differences in language, these terms are to be construed in a like manner. (Topa Ins. Co. v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Companies (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 1331, 1337 (Topa).) To do so, it is obviously necessary to focus on the most restrictive phrase, which would be "co-obligor on a contract debt." The crucial word is "a"--the parties must be co-obligors on "a" single contract. In other words, they must share the same contractual obligation. It is, of course, axiomatic that where language in a statute is clear, courts have nothing to interpret or construe. (Cummings v. Stanley (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 493, 507-508; see also American Nat. Ins. Co. v. Low (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 914, 924.) Hence, the plain ...


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