By Tierra Jones on March 14, 2018
In the interest of justice and courtroom efficiency, res judicata aims to prevent parties from re-litigating previously legally resolved issues and claims involving the same or similar parties. Maccormack v. Ingersoll-Rand Co., No. 4:16CV414 JCH, 2018 WL 623589, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Jan. 30, 2018). Two doctrines – claim preclusion and issue preclusion – are encompassed in res judicata. Issue preclusion, also known as the doctrine of collateral estoppel, is the narrower doctrine of the two. When a party to a case raises collateral estoppel as a defense to a claim, courts are tasked with determining “whether the party against whom it is asserted lacked full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first action or [whether] other circumstances justify affording him an opportunity to relitigate the issue.”
In late January of 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri relied on the doctrine of collateral estoppel in granting summary judgment for a defendant in a toxic tort case. In comparing the case before it with a case brought in Massachusetts nine years earlier, the federal district court found, as required by collateral estoppel, that the previous case involved (1) a final judgment on the merits, (2) adequate privity of parties, (3) and sufficiently identical issues that were (4) essential to the judgment.
A six-year United States Navy veteran, Berj Hovsepian, who worked as a “civilian employee” from 1958 to 1964 in Massachusetts, filed a products liability lawsuit against multiple defendants including Ingersoll-Rand Company (“Ingersoll-Rand”). Hovsepian brought the action in the Superior Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in December of 2009 after contracting asbestosis allegedly from exposure to products manufactured, sold, distributed or installed by the defendants. Ingersoll-Rand moved for summary judgment, arguing that Hovsepian offered neither evidence that he had worked with Ingersoll-Rand equipment, nor evidence demonstrating that Ingersoll-Rand had a duty to warn Hovesepian about “non-original materials supplied by third parties” even if he had. After Hovsepian failed to oppose the motion, the Massachusetts court granted summary judgment in favor of Ingersoll-Rand.
Roughly six years later, after his disease progressed from asbestosis to mesothelioma, Hovsepian initiated an action in the City of St. Louis, Missouri against multiple defendants including Ingersoll-Rand, bringing claims similar to those resolved in the earlier Massachusetts judgment. Shortly after, following Hovsepian’s death, Hovsepian’s special personal representatives removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Ingersoll-Rand again moved for summary judgment, raising collateral estoppel as its defense.
The District Court’s Ruling
In their opposition to Ingersoll-Rand’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs raised four main arguments. After electing to apply the law of Massachusetts based on considerations of Full Faith and Credit under 28 U.S.C § 1738, the court rejected each contention. First, the plaintiffs maintained that the Massachusetts decision was not a final judgment on the merits because Hovsepian did not oppose the motion. The court disposed of this point by noting that issue preclusion only requires the non-moving party to have had an opportunity to litigate an issue, not that the opportunity was seized. Second, plaintiffs contended that the Massachusetts judgment was not litigated because Ingersoll-Rand failed to complete its deposition. The court disagreed, noting that the defendant in a litigation proceeding is not responsible for presenting the plaintiff’s case. Just as the plaintiffs had an opportunity to oppose Hovsepian’s motion, the plaintiffs also had an opportunity to request additional discovery.
In the plaintiffs’ third argument, they insisted that the issues presented in the Massachusetts case were not identical to those presented in the federal case because Hovsepian’s asbestosis was at issue in the former, while his subsequently-developed mesothelioma was at issue in the latter. However, the court noted that Massachusetts generally looks to causation as one of the essential elements in examining the identity of the issues. Recognizing the broad view of defensive collateral estoppel taken by Massachusetts (that the issues need not be totally identical), the court determined that issues of causation which go “to the heart of both claims,” were already reached in the Massachusetts decision. The court found the issues to be sufficiently identical, as they both “involve injuries that arose out of the same alleged negligence, and as a result of exposure to the same product.”
Finally, the plaintiffs argued that it would be unfair for the federal court to apply the “rigid application’ of collateral estoppel. The court declined to address this assertion directly. Instead, the court disposed of the argument because none of the fairness considerations – mistake, fraud, concealment, or misrepresentation – were present in the case. Notably, because the plaintiffs did not dispute that the privity exists between them and Hovsepian, the court and the plaintiffs were in agreement on one of the requirements of the collateral estoppel. The plaintiffs’ roles, as the special representatives of Hovsepian, warranted a finding of privity. After carefully declining each of the plaintiffs’ four arguments, the court granted summary judgment on the basis of collateral estoppel.