Federal Court Collaterally Estops Claims in Separate Disease Case U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, January 30, 2018

MISSOURI — Over a period of six years, plaintiff Berj Hovsepian filed two separate actions for two separate diseases, asbestosis and mesothelioma, arising out of his work with various products as a civilian employee of the United States Navy in Boston from 1958-1964. The current action sits in federal court, having been removed from a December 2015 case filed in state court in Missouri. The court granted defendant Ingersoll-Rand’s summary judgment motion on collateral estoppel for the reasons discussed below.

In December of 2009, Hovsepian sued Ingersoll-Rand and other defendants in state court in Massachusetts, alleging negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, and gross negligence. In this action, the plaintiff alleged that his work with the defendants’ products led to the development of his asbestosis. Ingersoll-Rand did not complete a deposition of the plaintiff in this action. Ingersoll-Rand subsequently moved for summary judgment, contending that there was no evidence that the plaintiff worked with Ingersoll-Rand equipment, and that if he did, that they had no duty to warn about non-original materials supplied later by third parties. This motion was unopposed, and was granted in September of 2012.

In December of 2015, the plaintiff filed the current action in the Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis, with similar claims to the Massachusetts case, but noting the development of a different disease, mesothelioma. The case was removed to federal court pursuant to 28 USC 1442(a)(1) and 1446. According to the plaintiff’s briefs, the plaintiff was deposed in this case, and testified that he worked with gaskets and packing on Ingersoll-Rand pumps. Ingersoll-Rand filed for summary judgment on collateral estoppel, and the court determined that the law of Massachusetts would determine the preclusive effect of the prior litigation.

The doctrine of collateral estoppel holds 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.’” Massachusetts law states that “collateral estoppel applies when 1) there was a final judgement 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.” Plaintiff generally argued that fundamental fairness precluded application of the doctrine, and specifically that the doctrine did not apply because there was previously no final judgment on the merits (unopposed summary judgment motion), and that the issue was not litigated (incomplete deposition), nor was it identical to issues in the current litigation (different diseases).

Addressing the collateral estoppel factors noted above, the court first determined that the grant of summary judgment in the Massachusetts action was a final judgment on the merits, as the plaintiff had an opportunity to litigate issues against Ingersoll-Rand in that case, whether they made the best use of that opportunity or not. Plaintiff could have offered evidence demonstrating a disputed fact, or requested additional discovery as to Ingersoll-Rand. Next, the court determined that the representatives of Hovsepian’s estate were parties in privity to the prior adjudication. Regarding the third prong, the identity of issues, the court noted that Massachusetts courts have taken a broad view of the defensive use of collateral estoppel, including cases where a plaintiff puts forth evidence of a new medical condition allegedly caused by the same negligence. They stated that both of the plaintiff’s cases “involve injuries that arose out of the same alleged negligence, and as a result of exposure to the same product,” despite the difference in disease. Finally, the court determined that the final collateral estoppel factor was satisfied, as the causation issue was “essential to the findings” of the tribunal. Summary Judgment was granted for Ingersoll-Rand.

Read the full decision here.

 

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