Collateral Estoppel Leads to Bizarre and Unfair Result

Collateral Estoppel Leads to Bizarre and Unfair ResultLaw is, for the most part, fair and just. Despite being sometimes convoluted and filled with rules and exceptions to rules, in the end, common sense justice usually rules the day (even if the losing party does not actually believe that they obtained any justice).

There are some outcomes that are so extraordinary and so bizarre, that they seem to defy notions of fair play and justice. Sometimes, the law can defeat the purpose of justice and leave litigants with bizarre or unfair results. Such was the case in a recent case that was reported out of Michigan.

Tragic Malpractice Facts

The facts of the case are as bizarre as the legal outcome. The victim was a woman who died during brain surgery. The problem is that she was supposed to have surgery on her jaw, not her brain. Due to mix ups in medical records, she ended up having a completely unnecessary surgery on her brain, and died shortly afterwards.

Her lawyers sued both for medical malpractice but also for ordinary negligence. Although Michigan law is not the same as Florida’s, generally in all states, ordinary negligence is different from malpractice. A doctor who, for example, leaves a substance on the floor that you fall on while in her office, would be liable in ordinary negligence, not malpractice.

That is a pretty clear cut example, but in reality there are many situations where the line between ordinary negligence and malpractice is not so clear. That means that in some situations, attorneys will file a lawsuit that contains allegations of both.

Legal Wrangling Before Trial

In this case, because it could be argued that mixing up medical records has nothing to do with the actual treatment, this victim’s attorney filed for both regular negligence and malpractice.

The hospital moved to strike the negligence claim, admitting that it was liable for malpractice, but that the case only involved malpractice, not ordinary negligence. The court granted the motion and struck the negligence case. The estate then re-filed the case with just a malpractice claim and continued to litigate the case.

The case went to trial, but at trial, the attorneys for the victim asked the court if it could, again, assert the (previously dismissed) negligence claim. Amendments before trial do happen, and are not unusual. Often, the facts of the case as they come out during discovery, lead to discoveries of new claims, or support different legal theories than what were first put in the initial Complaint.

This judge agreed to allow the negligence claim to be heard, and the victim was awarded $20 million by the jury.

Post-Trial Problems Threaten the Verdict

So at this point, there was a deceased victim who had the wrong surgery performed on her, a hospital that admitted it was liable, and a jury that awarded $20 million. What could possibly go wrong?

The problem was that the $20mil was entered by the jury on the negligence claim, not on the malpractice claim. Remember, the negligence claim was revived by the trial court just before trial, after it had been previously dismissed by another judge.

Collateral Estoppel

The hospital argued that the doctrine of collateral estoppel prevented the Court from reviving the negligence claim. Collateral Estoppel, sometimes called res judicata, means that once a court has entered judgment on a claim that involves the same parties, and the same basic facts, that claim can not be re-litigated.

In common sense terms, it means no second bite at the apple. For example, let’s assume you sue someone for a breach of contract. The court finds that there was no breach. Then, you try to sue for breach of an implied contract, for the same breach. The Court could find that the issues were already litigated and determined in the prior case, barring the second action.

Estoppel will usually only apply as to parties who had the chance to litigate the case. So, if you and a friend were in a car accident, and your friend sues the negligent driver and loses, you could still sue because you were not a party to your friend’s suit.

In some cases, the first suit has to be decided on the merits, not on a technicality. So, for example, if you filed a suit for negligence, but did nothing to litigate it and it was dismissed for your failure to move your case forward (sometimes called “Lack of Prosecution”), you may be able to bring the case again because the first case was not dismissed on the facts or the merits, but based on a rule that requires Plaintiffs to move their cases forward.

Prior Dismissal of Negligence was Collateral Estoppel

As you may not guess, the issue in the Michigan case was that the negligence case had already been dismissed. The parties had actually agreed to dismiss the negligence case with prejudice, meaning the matter was finally determined and could not be re-filed as a negligence case (but could be re-filed as malpractice, as it was).

The Michigan Supreme Court agreed with the hospital, saying that the victim never should have been able to revive and try the ordinary negligence case because of the prior dismissal, which forever barred re-litigating it. Because the verdict was entered on that negligence count, not on malpractice, the verdict was invalidated. 

Devastatingly for the victim, the end result was that because of a legal technicality, or a legal misstep, there was no recovery, even though the hospital admitted it was negligent, the jury felt the damages were $20 mil, and the facts of the case were a startling dereliction of every duty that the victim’s doctors and medical providers had towards her.

It is worth noting that judges are people too, and even they often bear the weight of having to dutifully apply the law, even when it creates an unfair result. As one justice said on the Michigan Supreme Court:

“….the decedent’s husband’s plaintive inquiry nonetheless resonates loudly: ‘How is [this] possible in a just and fair world . . . ?”’ There is no satisfactory answer, in my judgment,” 

Every detail of your injury case needs attention, from start up until trial. Make sure your attorneys understand the technicalities of the law. Call Brill & Rinaldi for a free consultation to discuss damages that may be available if you are a victim of an accident.