A doctrine by which an earlier decision rendered by a court in a lawsuit between parties is conclusive as to the issues or controverted points so that they cannot be relitigated in subsequent proceedings involving the same parties.
Collateral estoppel is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded by a defendant in civil actions. The similar affirmative defense of res judicata differs from collateral estoppel in that it completely precludes the relitigation of a claim, demand, or cause of action, as opposed to an issue or controverted point, in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties to an earlier action.
The application of the collateral estoppel doctrine promotes the speedy administration of justice by preventing the continuous, duplicative litigation of fruitless claims when relitigation of them is unlikely to change the original decision made regarding them.
Issues or findings of fact, not conclusions of law, are subject to collateral estoppel only in certain cases. The issue against which collateral estoppel is claimed must be identical to an issue already litigated in the earlier case and must have been fully litigated at that time. In addition, the court must have actually decided the issue. The decision on the issue must have been integral in the outcome of the original lawsuit. This last requirement assures the issue was vigorously litigated so that it is fair to prevent its relitigation in a second action because there is little likeli-hood that the results will be different the second time.
If an action has been settled by the agreement of the parties, most jurisdictions will not apply collateral estoppel, since the issues have not been fairly and fully litigated.
Collateral estoppel is binding only upon those parties to the first action in which a decision was made and anyone who might be regarded as in privity with those parties, such as a bailor and bailee or a principal and his or her agent. In many jurisdictions a party in a lawsuit who is not subject to the estoppel effect of a prior judgment because the party was not a party to the original action in which the judgment was rendered can, in certain instances, use that judgment to bind his or her adversary who had been a party in the former action.
A defendant who, in a second action, pleads the defenses of collateral estoppel against the plaintiff uses it defensively. In many jurisdictions this use of the doctrine is considered fair because the plaintiff has the advantage of selecting the defendant and the forum in which the case is to be decided. The decision to commence the second lawsuit is based, in part, upon the findings or issues in the first action, and, therefore, it is not unreasonable to bind the plaintiff by the issues or findings made in that case.
In contrast, a plaintiff in a subsequent lawsuit who asserts collateral estoppel against a defendant uses the doctrine offensively to buttress his or her cause of action. Fewer jurisdictions, however, permit its offensive use since the defendant against whom it would be applied has neither the choice of forum nor of adversary.
Collateral estoppel has limited applicability in cases where the issues raised in the court where the action was first heard were beyond its jurisdiction. In antitrust cases brought in federal court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over such matters, prior state court rulings concerning antitrust violations made during the course of deciding the legality of a contract will not be given collateral estoppel effect. Courts reason that the punitive and exclusive nature of the federal remedy in antitrust cases precludes collateral estoppel based upon state court decisions.
In contrast, federal courts have applied collateral estoppel in patent cases to any underlying facts decided by state courts but not to facts alleged to prove the issue of patent validity or infringement.
The availability of collateral estoppel is also limited by changes in the law that take place between the original and subsequent action. Collateral estoppel will not apply if modifications in the applicable law alter the operative facts needed to obtain a favorable ruling. To do otherwise would deny an individual equal protection of law merely because of the luck of the person who obtained the previous ruling.
Jurisdictions differ on whether to give an estoppel effect to a criminal conviction of a party currently involved in a civil lawsuit. Traditionally, estoppel was not permitted, since the plaintiff in the civil action was not a party to the criminal proceeding. Today, a number of states give full collateral estoppel effect to a previous criminal conviction. Acquittal of a crime is not given collateral estoppel effect in a civil proceeding because the plaintiff in the civil suit was not a party to the criminal proceeding and could not offer evidence against the defendant. This rule prevented o. j. simpson from using his acquittal of murder as a defense in the civil trials brought against him by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman following the murder trial.
In addition, the difference between the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof necessary for a criminal conviction and the preponderance of evidence standard in civil actions would make it unfair to allow the acquitted defendant to use his or her acquittal to bind the opponent in the civil matter in which the standard of proof to obtain a judgment is not as stringent.