Collateral Estoppel Applied to Bar Second Asbestos Case Against Crane by Same Plaintiff

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The decedent, a civilian employee for the United States Navy from 1958-1964, died from mesothelioma. Prior to passing he brought suit in St. Louis City, Missouri, in December 2015, which the defendants removed to federal court. His representatives continued the suit after he passed. Defendant Crane Co. filed a motion to dismiss based upon collateral estoppel. The court granted this motion.

In December 2009, the decedent brought an action against Crane and others in Massachusetts based upon asbestosis. Crane filed a motion for summary judgment in that case based upon lack of identification, which the court granted in August 2012. The 2015 Missouri lawsuit asserted identical claims to those in the Massachusetts case.

At the outset, the court affirmed the Eighth Circuit’s implied endorsement of the use of a motion to dismiss to raise res judicata. Res judicata encapsulates two preclusion concepts — issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) and claim preclusion. Collateral estoppel means 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.’” Due to the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution — 28 U.S.C. § 1738 —Massachusetts law determined the preclusive effect of the parties’ previous litigation.

Under Massachusetts law, collateral estoppel applied 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 current adjudication, and (4) the issue decided in the prior adjudication was essential to the judgment. The guiding principle was whether the party lacked full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first action.

Here, the first two elements were met. The third element was also met, even though the decedent’s current claims had two differences — additional exposures in the second case, and the second cases alleges wrongful death instead of asbestos. However these two differences did not alter the nature of the claims, and the court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that Crane provided insufficient information regarding the identity of the claims presented in both cases. Regarding the fourth element, decedent had a full and fair opportunity in the previous case to litigate the claim that Crane’s products caused his injuries.

Read the full decision here.