Brief Fact Summary. The Defendants, TWA, Inc and Tann Company (Defendants), were sued in multiple lawsuits stemming from a mid-air plane crash. In one case where Tann Company was cleared of any liability, Tann Company sought to invoke collateral estoppel as to any other cases where its negligence was to be litigated. This included lawsuits against nonparties to the litigation where Tann Company had not been found negligent.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Collateral estoppel may be applied against parties who were not in a previous litigation.
On March 9, 1967, a mid-air collision occurred between aircrafts respectively owned by the Defendants near Dayton, Ohio. There were no survivors and numerous civil actions seeking recovery for alleged wrongful death and property damage were filed in various federal and state courts. Among those cases was a wrongful death action, Humphreys v. Herman Tann, et al, which commenced in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and was moved to the present court. This Court had, on July 15, 1970, conducted a pre-trial conference for the purpose of scheduling consolidated discovery with respect to all actions pending in front of it, including Humphreys. Plaintiffs’ attorney for that case was present and given a full and ample opportunity to participate in all discovery, framing of the issues, and ascertainment of all relevant facts pertaining to the crash. A second pre-trial conference was later held and an attorney named Spangenberg, a specialist in representations of plaintiffs’ cases in air disasters, gave a statements of facts with which all other present plaintiff’s attorneys concurred. At this hearing, it was decided that Downey v. TWA, Inc. would be the first case to commence to trial. Plaintiffs’ attorney in Humphreys was not present at this conference. At the conclusion of the Downey trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff as against TWA, Inc., but found against plaintiff on her claims against the Tann Company. No appeal was filed and upon satisfaction of the judgment by TWA, Inc. The judgment in the Downey case became final. Tann Company then filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of the doctrine of collateral estoppel in all outstanding passenger actions pending against the Tann Company. At the hearing for this pending motion, counsel for Humphreys was present and presented oral argument, though plaintiff in that case was not a party to the Downey decision in which Tann Company’s liability and responsibility in the mid-air crash was determined.
Issue. Whether the doctrine of res judicata or collateral estoppel can be applied against a person who was not party to the prior action.
Held. Yes. The court concludes that no principle of fundamental fairness inherent in the
concept of due process will be offended by the application of the doctrine against plaintiff
Humphreys to bar the relitigation of the issue of the Tann Company’s liability for the
mid-air disaster. In this Court’s opinion unfairness will result and the effective
administration of justice will be retarded if plaintiff Humphreys is permitted to relitigate
an issue, which has been fully and fairly adjudicated.
Discussion. It is important to note that this decision did not conform to the weight of
standing authority and was later overturned by the Sixth Circuit citing the overcrowded
dockets concern could not overcome the due process objections.
The court came to its holding in the present case through the following reasoning. The
Bernard Doctrine abandoned the requirement of strict mutuality and in the present case,
two of the essential three elements for collateral estoppel were met: (i) A final judgment
on the merits had been met and (ii) the question of Tann Company’s negligence had been
fully litigated. The third element required privity of parties in the present case to those in
the Downey case and Humphreys was not a party to the case. Naturally, it would follow
that privity not met as to the parties. Thus, the Tann Company could not invoke collateral
estoppel. However, the court found that it did not believe that the maxim that each man
be afforded his day in court be so fixed so that it mandatorily apply where careful
evaluation of the record has been found. The Court reasoned that no principles of
fundamental fairness inherent in due process were offended by application of collateral
estoppel as to Humphreys.