The doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes a party from re-litigating an issue raised and decided against that party or a party in privity in a prior action. Determinations of quasi-judicial agencies, such as the Workers’ Compensation Board, are within the scope of this doctrine so long as there is an identity of issue and a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision.
New York courts have held that, in personal injury actions, collateral estoppel applies to some, but not all, of the issues decided by the Workers’ Compensation Board. Courts make the distinction between issues that are truly identical and issues that are not identical due to the broader scope of the personal injury action. For example, in Auqui v Seven Thirty One Ltd. Partnership, 22 N.Y.3d 246 (2014), the Court of Appeals held that a Workers’ Compensation Board finding that the plaintiff had no further causally-related disability after a certain date did not estop the plaintiff from asserting disability after that date in the personal injury action. The Court opined that the issues were not identical because “disability” in a Workers’ Compensation context was necessarily connected to inability to work, whereas in a personal injury context, the focus would be on the injury’s impact on all aspects of plaintiff’s life.
In contrast, in Roserie v. Alexander’s Kings Plaza, 171 A.D.3d 822 (2d Dep’t 2019), the Workers’ Compensation Board found that the plaintiff did not sustain an alleged Chiari malformation as a result of the subject accident. The Second Department held that this was binding for collateral estoppel purposes, as the issue of the causal relation for this specific injury was identical in both the personal injury lawsuit and the Workers’ Compensation Board hearing.
Now, in Lennon v. 56th & Park(NY) Owner LLC, 2021 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04972 (2d Dep’t 2021), the Second Department has further expanded the issues covered by collateral estoppel. In Lennon, plaintiff alleged that a hoist elevator malfunctioned, causing violent movements and injuries to his knee. In a prior Workers’ Compensation Board hearing, the administrative law judge had found that, “the hoist elevator did not malfunction in any way.” The Second Department held that, based on this finding, plaintiff could not claim the hoist elevator malfunctioned in the personal injury case. As a result of this finding, the Court granted defendant summary judgment.
In Lennon, the Second Department has clarified that the collateral estoppel of Workers’ Compensation Board decision applies to factual findings about how the accident itself occurred. When read along with Auqui and Roserie, it holds that Workers’ Compensation Board decisions can be used for collateral estoppel if the determination concerns the causal relation of the accident to the injury or how the accident itself occurred, since these issues are identical in both Workers’ Compensation and personal injury contexts, but not necessarily when it concerns the extent of the injury itself.
Lennon demonstrates the importance of asserting the affirmative defense of collateral estoppel in an Answer and obtaining all Workers’ Compensation records in a personal injury case. The specific details of any Workers’ Compensation decision may not always be available until discovery has been exchanged, but the affirmative defense of collateral estoppel must be asserted with the Answer. The defense of collateral estoppel is waived if not asserted with the Answer or the subject of a pre-answer Motion to Dismiss and so defense practitioners need to address whether the injury occurred in the course of employment early on. See CPLR 3211(e). Lennon also shows the importance of carefully reviewing any Workers’ Compensation decisions to determine whether any issue decided could possibly preclude an issue or even an entire claim by the plaintiff, especially as it relates to how the accident occurred or the causal relation of the accident to the injury.