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Joint and Several Liability

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Joint and Several Liability Meaning

Joint and several liability is a legal term defining shared responsibility of two or more parties in a lawsuit. If two or more parties are jointly and severally liable for a harmful act, each one of them can be sued independently, and will be independently liable for the injuries from the act as per common law.

How Joint and Several Liability Works

Joint and several liability makes all parties in a suit legally responsible for damages. In case one party is unable to pay, other parties will have to pay more to make up for it. Sometimes, the portion of damages paid can also depend on the parties’ direct involvement or fault in causing the damage.

Often joint and several liability is used in cases involving toxic torts claims. These cases, such as asbestos-related issues, have claims about asbestos exposure which might have occurred at multiple job sites. As a result, it is difficult to determine which exact site led to the damage. Here, joint and several liability would be used to consider all sites liable, instead of looking for an individual tortfeasor.

There are advantages and disadvantages of joint and several liability. Here are a few advantages:

  • Joint and several liability is based on the theory that the defendants are sufficient to decide the share of liability or pay damages to the plaintiff, within themselves. The plaintiff doesn’t need to be involved in litigation once liability has been established internally by the defendants.
  • Plaintiff has a higher chance of recovering damages as a financially wealthy party can often make up for the lack of funds of other joint parties.

However, joint and several liability also has a few disadvantages:

  • Often parties that have nothing to do with the tort would face some financial liability. If the entire group is held liable and one member of the group does not make payments, the entire group would need to pay more that their original share to avoid defaulting.
  • Due to joint contribution for damages, reasonable division of damages is often not possible.
  • One party with more financial resources might have to pay a lot more even if their contribution to the tort was negligible.

Here is an article where you can read more on advantages and disadvantages of joint and several liability.

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Difference Between Joint Liability and Several Liability

There is a basic difference between joint liability and several liability. The term joint liability refers to the share of liability assigned to two or more parties involved in a business. Several liability refers to a situation when all parties are liable for their respective contribution to the tortious act.

Another variation of joint liability is the joint and several liability. A joint and several liability allows the defendants to decide share of liability and payments. If a loan company sues partners of a business, the partners can collect their debt share and decide responsibility between them.

For instance, in a joint liability if two doctors are being sued for mistreatment of a patient, and one of the doctors dies, the other will be liable for the whole amount of damages. In contrast, in a several liability, if multiple partners take out a loan and one partner dies, all partners will only be liable for their share of loans.

There are many other varieties of joint and several liability. Here are a few varieties:

  • Market share liability: This variety or doctrine of joint and several liability is used when there are multiple producers of a good in the market. If the court is unable to determine which manufacturer created the good that causes the harm, then this can be invoked to hold manufactures proportionately liable based on their market share. This was ruled in the case of Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories (1980).
  • Alternative liability : This doctrine was established in the case of Summers v Tice (1948). In this case, the court decided that two independent parties can be held liable for the entirety of plaintiff’s injuries if it is impossible to determine which party caused the injuries. This also shifted the burden of proof on the defendants to release themselves from any liability.
  • Preempted causes or doomed plaintiffs : This doctrine was introduced in the case of Dillon v. Twin State Gas & Electric Co (1932). This was a unique case where a boy who fell from a bridge tried to grab a wire to stop the fall and the wire electrocuted and killed him. The court found that since it was reasonable to believe that the boy would have died any way from the fall, the electric wire company would not be held liable for death. However, they were held liable for the additional suffering caused by electrocution.

You can read more on differences between joint and several liability.

Examples of Joint and Several Liability

Joint and several liability is followed in some states. There are multiple different types of cases where this can apply. The most common ones are personal injury cases. For instance, in Alabama and Delaware, in a multi-vehicle car accident, the plaintiff could win a monetary award of $100,000 against other joint and severally liable partners. If there are four partners and each one was assigned 25% of fault by the court, the plaintiff can try and collect the full amount from one of the individuals and then seek contributions from others. In other states that follow a doctrine of pure several liability, the person is only liable for their proportional fault.

For instance, in a case individual A has to pay $8 million (80% of $10 million) and individual B has to pay $2 million (20% of $10 million). If individual A doesn’t have any money and is uninsured, the plaintiff will only recover amount paid by individual B. If in another scenario, the state follows joint liability doctrine, plaintiff can recover full damages from any of the defendants.

In microfinance, money lenders often loan money to a group of poor and each group member is jointly liable. This means that the individual is responsible for the entire group’s repayment. If one group-member does not pay, the entire group will be held liable.

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