15. What is “joint and several liability”?
Joint and several liability is a manner of apportioning liability among multiple parties. It will only apply when there is more than one tortfeasor. Parties that are jointly liable are assessed a certain amount of damages. Joint and severally liable individuals are all liable to the plaintiff, but the entire award of damages may be recovered from any defendant.
• Note: Joint and several liability is a windfall for plaintiffs who can seek recovery from one party and allow that party to seek any level of contribution from a joint tortfeasor.
• Example: Ann is a huge fan of Justin, the singer. She follows him all over the country and is somewhat of a stalker. She calls hotels when he is in town in an attempt to identify where he will be staying. She calls the hotel and learns that Justin will be staying on the third floor. She asks to rent the room next to him. When Justin arrives, she secretly records him singing in his room and posts it to YouTube. This severely hurts Justin’s career when folks learn that his singing is actually auto tune and he cannot carry a note. Justin sues Ann and the hotel. The court awards joint liability of $1 million against Ann and the hotel. If the court awards joint and several liability, Justin can recover the $2 million against the hotel or Ann. The hotel or Ann would then have to work to seek $1 million contribution from the other.
• Discussion: How do you feel about the doctrine of joint and several liability? Is this fair to the defendants? Why or why not?
• Practice Question: Carrie and Doug are being sued by Edith. Carrie is rich, while Doug is of modest means. Edith is worried that, if she receives a verdict against Carrie and Doug, she will not be able to recover against Doug. Under what situation would Edith be able to recover the entire verdict, despite Doug’s lack of assets?