March 2013 Collateral Estoppel Update

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The Court of Appeals holds that a determination made by the Worker’s Compensation Board that an injured plaintiff was no longer disabled as a result of his injuries acts as collateral estoppel and precludes the plaintiff from litigating this issue in his corresponding personal injury claim.

The case is Auqui v. Seven Thirty One LP, and it will likely be the bane of many PI attorneys existence in years to come.  This case involved a deliveryman who was hurt in the scope of his employment when a sheet of plywood fell from a building owned by the defendant.  Of course, the injured man had a worker’s comp case with all the attendant benefits and hearings and, at one such hearing, the ALJ determined that based on the evidence presented that in the ambit of his worker’s comp claim the injured party was no longer disabled by his injuries and terminated his benefits.  The decision was appealed to the full WCB which affirmed the ALJ’s decision.

Having learned of the decision, the defendant then moved the court in the corresponding personal injury claim to preclude the plaintiff from presenting any proof that his disability extended beyond the date determined by the WCB.  The grounds for the defendant’s motion was that the decision of the WCB (a quasi-judicial administrative agency) acted as collateral estoppel of this issue.  The court below denied the motion and the appeal made it to the COA who reversed.

In their decision the COA reviewed the principles of collateral estoppel and found that the WCB’s determination was based on an issue of fact which entitles it to a preclusive effect.  The Court declined to find that the WCB’s decision involved a legal conclusion or a conclusion of mixed law and fact as those aspects of a quasi-judicial agency are not entitled to a preclusive effect.  Since the Court found this was a factual determination they only thing they had to determine to decide whether collateral estoppel applied was whether the injured party had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue at the WCB which they determined he did.

In dissent, Justice Pigott points out that the well-settled law is that an administrative agency’s final conclusion on an issue, whether characterized as fact or a mixed question, is not entitled to preclusive effect and states that the WCB’s decision that the claimant can go back to work couldn’t be more final of a conclusion.  Justice Pigott goes on to state that in his opinion the issue decided by the WCB was clearly one of mixed law and fact and that the policies and vagaries of the worker’s comp system need to be factored into the Court’s decision as well.

In any event, the COA has spoken and we must now listen by making sure we keep a close eye on our personal injury client’s worker’s comp cases (or that we handle them ourselves) to make sure that the important issues in the liability claim aren’t decided without us. To read the full opinion please click here.