Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

By Peter Yoon
Claim and Issue Preclusion in Workers’ Compensation

The doctrines of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel are affirmative defenses to claims or issues that have been previously adjudicated in Court and may not be pursued by the same parties. The parties are precluded from litigating those issues and claims a second time.

Res Judicata is the Latin term for “a matter judged.” Once a matter has received final judgment, Res Judicata prevents the same parties from re-litigating the same claims again.

The Court considers three factors in determining whether the doctrine of Res Judicata applies. First, the Court must consider whether there was a previous litigation in which identical claims were raised, or in which identical claims could have been raised. Second, the parties must be the same parties as those who litigated the original action. Third, the original action must have received a final judgment on the merits.

Once these three conditions are met, the Court will apply the doctrine of Res Judicata and prevent a party from attempting to re-litigate the claim.

The doctrine of Collateral Estoppel can be seen as the younger sibling to Res Judicata. Collateral Estoppel prevents the same parties from re-litigating the same issues a second time. Collateral Estoppel arises when the exact same issue that is before the Court has been raised and litigated in an earlier action or proceeding.

In determining whether the doctrine of Collateral Estoppel applies, the Court, again, considers three factors. First, the issues in the previous and subsequent litigation are identical. The Court will require that the issues be identical or very similar. Second, the issue must have been actually litigated during the first case. Third, the issue must have necessarily been decided on the merits and the issue was implicated in the judgment. This means that the adjudication of the issue must be connected to the resulting judgment.

Although they are similar, there are some key differences between Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel. Unlike Res Judicata, if an issue was not raised in the previous litigation, Collateral Estoppel may not be used to prevent adjudication of the issue in the new litigation. The issue must have been actually litigated for Collateral Estoppel to apply. Res judicata, however, prevents parties from making claims that should have been raised in the previous litigation. In essence, the claims are deemed waived.

Parties, specifically defendant/employers, have attempted to apply these doctrines to the workers’ compensation arena. However, parties have discovered these doctrines are not so easily applied for workers’ compensation claims. The biggest hurdle to apply Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel in a workers’ compensation case is the fact that the workers’ compensation law is set to protect the injured worker. Courts are reluctant to preclude an injured worker from raising claims that were not raised in a previous hearing.

Although it is an uphill battle to succeed in applying the doctrine of Res Judicata and/or Collateral Estoppel to a workers’ compensation case, it is still a viable defense. Parties should remember to object to identical issues or issues being re-litigated to preserve the record for later appellate review.

However, when the parties are dealing with subrogation and third-party negligence, the Appeals Board has indicated that Collateral Estoppel does not apply to prevent a party from re-litigating the same issue in the workers’ compensation proceeding when it has been litigated in Civil Court. The Appeals Board has given numerous reasons for this, including: (1) the third-party tortfeasor and the employer were not in privity for Collateral Estoppel to apply in the workers’ compensation proceeding (Cherry v. County of Los Angeles/DCFS AIMS Santa Clarita, 2013 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 249), (2) the civil action and the workers’ compensation proceeding were not identical because the rules of tort law required the applicant to prove proximate causation by scientific certainty, and in workers’ compensation the applicant was required to prove injury by reasonable medical probability, and (3) the applicant needed to prove negligence in the civil claim, but compensability in the workers’ compensation proceeding was without regard to negligence. (California State University-Fullerton v. WCAB (Miranda) (2012) 77 CCC 550)