Collateral Estoppel Leads to Grant of Summary Judgment for Pump Manufacturer U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, September 11, 2017

MISSOURI — The plaintiffs filed suit in Missouri against multiple defendants including Buffalo Pumps, arguing that their decedent, Berj Hovsepian, developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos containing products for which the defendants were responsible. The case was removed to the U.S. District Court. Prior to filing the Missouri suit, the plaintiffs filed suit against Buffalo in Massachusetts asserting very similar allegations. Buffalo moved for summary judgment in the Massachusetts case. The motion was granted as unopposed.

In the instant matter, Buffalo moved for summary judgment, arguing that the suit was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. As for summary judgment, the court noted that summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. Of course, the burden falls on the party seeking summary judgment. As for res judicata, the doctrine encompasses issue preclusion and claim preclusion, two distinct concepts. Issue preclusion also known as collateral estoppel states that “once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the parties, whether on the same or a different claim.” In sum, an issue that has already been decided cannot be re-litigated. Under Massachusetts law, collateral estoppel is applicable when “1) there was a final judgment on the merits in the previous adjudication, 2) the party against whom estoppel is asserted is a party (or in privity with a party) to the prior adjudication, 3) the issue decided in the prior adjudication is identical with the one presented in the action in question, and 4) the issue decided in the prior adjudication was essential to the judgment.”

The plaintiffs took the position that the Massachusetts grant of summary judgment did not constitute final judgment, the issues were not litigated, the issues are not the same, and fairness requires a less rigid approach. The court stated that finality only requires the opportunity to be heard on the merits. Here, Plaintiff had the opportunity to litigate but did not to oppose Buffalo’s motion. The plaintiffs also argued that they did not have an opportunity to litigate because Plaintiff’s deposition had not concluded. The court was not persuaded, as the plaintiffs could have offered evidence illustrating a material dispute of fact. In fact, the plaintiffs could have sought additional discovery from Buffalo, but did not in the Massachusetts case. As for privity, the plaintiffs concede privity is met by the plaintiffs as special representatives of Mr. Hovsepian. Relying on the Alves decision, the court also analyzed the concept of identity of issues and stated that “generally speaking, Massachusetts courts examine the identity of issues by analyzing whether the same issues is at the crux of the claim.” The Massachusetts case alleged that Mr. Hovsepian developed asbestosis as a result of Buffalo Pumps’ negligence and failure to warn the dangers of asbestos containing products. The instant case alleged virtually the same according to the court. The plaintiff argued that the issues were not the same because asbestosis and mesothelioma are different diseases. The court acknowledged that latent asbestos diseases can present challenges on the doctrine of res judicata. However, the suits both arose out of the same allegations and same alleged exposures. Accordingly, the issues are the same.

Finally, the court found that the “issues involved in both cases were essential to the Massachusetts’ court decision.” Accordingly, the plaintiffs had their opportunity to litigate. Summary judgment was therefore granted.

Read the full decision here.

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