Collateral estoppel

Karen Hildebrandt recently handled a claim where

a seaman alleged he sustained personal injuries during

the course of his employment aboard a Member's

vessel after two weeks of employment. He brought

suit in the Texas Federal Court demanding recovery

for various items of damages including loss of

future earning capacity.

Defense counsel learned during discovery that the

plaintiff had brought at least two previous lawsuits

against other shipping companies, wherein he claimed,

and recovered for, loss of future earning capacity.

In the first lawsuit, the case was tried resulting in an

award for future lost earnings. Evidence in the case

included the seaman's treating physician testifying

the seaman could not return to work at sea because

of the physical requirements of the job as well as his

economist testifying as to his future economic loss.

The decision was appealed by the shipowner who

noted the award for future lost wages was based on

false testimony as the seaman had already returned

to work as a seaman. However, the appeals court

affirmed the judgement.

The second lawsuit was settled prior to trial. The

settlement agreement signed by the parties specifically

set out an amount for loss of future earning capacity.

Counsel handling the Member's defense filed a

motion for partial summary judgment arguing that

the legal theory of collateral estoppel applied and

the seaman cannot recover for loss of future earning

capacity as he had already litigated and recovered

for same in two previous cases.

Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is

a legal doctrine which prevents the relitigation of

the same issue in subsequent lawsuits once an issue

has been determined by a court. Counsel argued that

the issue of loss of future earning capacity is identical

to the issue litigated in the two previous actions, in

that plaintiff was again claiming he would be unable

to return to his previous employment as a seaman and

sought a determination of his future earning capacity.

The issue of future economic loss was fully litigated

during a 4 day trial as well as an appeal. As counsel

argued, to allow the seaman to again litigate a claim

for future loss of earning capacity could result in a

potential triple recovery for the seaman and encourage

litigious behavior, unfairly prejudicing the Member.

Unfortunately the judge did not issue a separate

written decision solely on the motion. He considered

the motion during the trial of this case, which

resulted in a defense verdict. However, the Bodily

Injury Team is on the lookout for similar cases where

the issue of collateral estoppel can again be raised

by motion and hopefully favorably decided.

Staff Author