Ray Price, Kitty Wells, and Englebert Humperdinck all had hits with it, and now Prince Andrew is singing it too: “Please release me, let me go.” But a federal judge is not letting him off the hook so easily, and the decision offers an important lesson for attorneys drafting settlement agreements.
In a high-profile case, the plaintiff Virgina Guiffre claims Prince Andrew sexually abused her when she was underage and being trafficked by the late, disgraced Jeffrey Epstein. The Duke of York vigorously denies these claims and recently filed a motion to dismiss, relying on a 2009 settlement agreement between Ms. Guiffre and Epstein in a Florida case in which he was not a party. The settlement released Epstein from liability along with “any other person or entity who could have been included as a potential defendant.” Prince Andrew insisted he was among those potential defendants.
The judge was not so sure. In denying Prince Andrew’s motion to dismiss, the court found the release language ambiguous. Prince Andrew argued for a broad interpretation of the release, reasoning that a reference to “royalty” in the earlier action proved he was a potential defendant. Ms. Guiffre countered that Prince Andrew could not have been a defendant in that case, both because of the specific claims in the action and Florida’s lack of personal jurisdiction over Prince Andrew. The court found the release language could support both interpretations and left the decision over the correct interpretation to a trier of fact.
Behind the judge’s decision lies the substantive question of law that will ultimately determine whether Prince Andrew is included within the 2009 settlement agreement: How specific must a settlement agreement be to release other parties from liability?
Under the common law, the language of the release would not have made any difference. The common law rule of “unity of discharge” provided that a release of one joint tortfeasor from liability was effective to release all joint tortfeasors as well. But this rule had unfortunate consequences when a plaintiff settling with one defendant unwittingly released their claims against all other potential defendants as well. Consequently, many states, including Florida and Massachusetts, enacted statutes abolishing this rule and specifying that a release of one joint tortfeasor does not automatically release any others from liability.
In Massachusetts, the relevant statute provides that a settlement releasing one joint tortfeasor does not release any other tortfeasor from liability “unless its terms so provide.” G.L. c. 231B § 4(a). The statute does not define this further, and courts interpreting this language in parallel statutes in other states have come to different conclusions.
In Cram v. Town of Northbridge, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court described the three positions taken by other jurisdictions that have enacted similar statutes. First, in some states a general release is effective to release anyone included in its language, no matter how broad its effect. Second, other states require each individual to be named specifically in the release. Last, some states adopt an intermediate position that doesn’t require each person to be named, as long as the parties intended the person to be released.
The SJC adopted the “intermediate” position, making intent the crucial issue in determining the extent of a release. The Court found this interpretation best preserved the legislature’s intent in enacting the statute to encourage efficient settlement of disputes. Requiring specific naming of every party in the release would be an unnecessary burden and goes beyond the statute’s language. On the other hand, allowing a general release to extend to every possible defendant would in effect return to the common law rule discharging all other parties from liability.
Attorneys settling cases in Massachusetts must keep this case in mind when drafting releases. Naming specific parties in the release will be the most effective proof of intent as required by the Cram case. But when this is not an option, the parties must draft language that clearly indicates who is intended to be discharged from liability. For example, releasing the hypothetical defendant ACME, Inc. “and its directors, shareholders, and employees,” provides sufficient identity of interest for a court to clearly determine who is covered by the release, and who is not. Careful drafting is required to ensure that in future disputes over the extent of the release, the drafter’s intent can be easily ascertained.
The ultimate decision about whether Prince Andrew may claim the benefit of the 2009 settlement agreement must wait until another day. Whatever the outcome, attorneys should carefully consider the language they use in settlement agreements, both to ensure the proper parties are released from liability and to avoid overly broad releases. Failure to do so could cause the unwitting drafter a royal pain.