Defendant’s Collateral Estoppel Argument Fails in Motion For JMOL

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division, March 5, 2020

NORTH CAROLINA – On June 9, 2015, Wade Miller Gore (decedent) and Faye Gore (plaintiff) filed an asbestos-related lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The complaint alleged that the decedent was exposed to asbestos products while working at the DuPont plant in Leland, NC. 

Trial began on Sept. 16, 2019 with the plaintiff’s case-in-chief concluding on Sept. 20, 2019.  At that time, the defendant, John Crane, Inc. (JCI), moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) for the first time pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). The court denied JCI’s motion. Upon completion of JCI’s case-in-chief on Sept. 25, 2019, JCI renewed its motion, and the court denied it again. 

At that time, the jury was instructed on the law and provided the verdict form where the three issues for deliberation were provided; only the first two issues are relevant to this discussion. The first issue required the jury to determine if the decedent was injured by the negligence of JCI. The second issue focused on whether or not JCI failed to provide an adequate warning which caused the decedent’s injury. At the end of deliberations, the jury indicated that they came to a decision on the first issue, finding that the defendant was not negligent, but on the second issue they were deadlocked. The court accepted the verdict as to the first issue and declared a mistrial as to the second issue.

On Oct. 25, 2019, JCI renewed its motion for JMOL pursuant to Rule 50(b) under the theories of collateral estoppel and the law-of-the-case (the court’s analysis here only considers collateral estoppel). “Under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, when an issue has been fully litigated and decided, it cannot be contested again between the same parties.”[i]  An issue is determined to be fully litigated based upon a three-prong test:

1. The earlier suit resulted in a final judgment on the merits

2. That the issue in question was identical to an issue actually litigated and necessary to the judgment

3. That both [defendants] and [plaintiff] were either parties to the earlier suit or were in privity with parties.

JCI argued that the three prongs of the test were satisfied here and the plaintiff was collaterally estopped from re-litigating its failure-to-warn claim because the parties are the same, the jury verdict was a final judgment, and two elements of the failure-to-warn claim—negligent conduct and proximate cause—were decided by the jury in its verdict on negligence. The plaintiff argued that the two elements of the failure-to-warn claim were not identical to the negligence claim as decided by the jury.

The court agreed with the plaintiff finding, “while the instructions for the two claims may be similar, in determining defendant was not negligent, the jury did not necessarily decide that defendant had a duty to warn, nor did it decide that defendant in fact breached that specific duty.” Further, “by deciding that defendant was not negligent, the jury did not necessarily decide that defendant did not unreasonably fail to provide adequate warning or instruction.”  Therefore, the court found that the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not apply and there was no bar to a retrial of the plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claim.

[i] Fox v. Johnson, 777 S.E.2d 314, 323 (N.C. Ct. App. 2015).