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Williamson v. Columbia Gas & Electric Corp.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Williamson (Plaintiff) sued Columbia Gas & Electric Corp. (Defendant ) in two separate actions. The second suit was dismissed while the first was still pending and Defendant moved to dismiss based upon res judicata.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When an action involving the same operative facts, issues, and damages as an earlier suit that is still pending is decided first, res judicata bars the first suit from proceeding.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant along with other parties for conspiring to violate the antitrust sections of the Sherman Act. While this suit was pending, Plaintiff filed a second suit, against Defendant alone, alleging antitrust violations of the Clayton Act. Defendant raised a statute of limitations defense in this second action and the suit was dismissed. Defendant then filed a motion in the first case asking to have the complaint dismissed based on res judicata. The court found that the parties in the two actions were substantially the same and that the same operative facts and damages were being litigated in both suits and granted the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the first suit involved additional defendants and that the two suits involved two different causes of action and two different statutes.

    Issue.

    When a later suit is decided before an earlier action, but involves the same operative facts, issues, and damages, does res judicata operate to bar the first suit?

    Held.

    (Goodrich, J.) Yes. When an action involving the same operative facts, issues, and damages as an earlier suit that is still pending is decided first, res judicata bars the first suit from proceeding. Res judicata exists as a legal doctrine in order to prevent the relitigation of the same issues in multiple actions. Here, the second action involved the same operative facts, issues, and damages as the first suit. The fact that the suits alleged violations of different statutes is not relevant, the second claim could have been joined in the earlier suit. Although the original suit alleged conspiracy and the second did not, in tort cases a plaintiff may only recover for damages actually done, not the conspiracy itself. Therefore, the theories in the two actions are not different. The presence of additional parties to the original suit is not material so long as the operative facts and law relevant to both actions are the same. Finally, the fact that the second action was decided on the basis of the statute of limitations does not affect whether res judicata was appropriately applied. The trial court correctly applied res judicata in this case. Plaintiff’s two cases were virtually indistinguishable and a judgment on the merits of the second action bars consideration of the first. Affirmed.

    Discussion.

    In Smith v. Kirkpatrick, 111 N.E.2d 209 (N.Y. 1953), the plaintiff sued over an oral agreement to procure business for the defendant. After the case was dismissed under the Statute of Frauds, with leave to amend, the plaintiff amended his complaint to allege an informal agreement terminable at will, or alternatively, a joint venture. This complaint was dismissed after plaintiff failed to provide evidence of either theory. Plaintiff then brought a second action in quantum meruit. The court did not bar this second action on the basis of res judicata, finding that the two cases involved different rights and harms. This case suggests that courts have some flexibility in applying res judicata.


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