Collateral Estoppel Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Collateral Estoppel, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Collateral Estoppel?

It is a doctrine which prevents a party from engaging in a different legal proceeding , the issue, which was already judged in some previous case. The same party is legally bound by the previous judgement.

History and Meaning of Collateral Estoppel

Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is a legal doctrine that prevents a party from re-litigating an issue that has already been finally determined in a prior case. The doctrine has its origins in English common law and was eventually adopted by American courts. The purpose of collateral estoppel is to promote efficiency in the legal system by preventing parties from repeatedly litigating the same issues.

The doctrine applies when the issue in question was actually litigated and decided in the prior case, the issue was essential to the judgment in the prior case, and the party against whom the doctrine is being invoked was a party or in privity with a party in the prior case. If these conditions are met, the party is precluded from relitigating the issue in a subsequent case.

Examples of Collateral Estoppel

  • A person is charged with theft of a car and is acquitted. The victim sues the person in civil court for damages. The issue of whether the person stole the car has already been decided in the criminal case, and the person is collaterally estopped from denying that they stole the car in the civil case.
  • A person is injured in a car accident and sues the other driver for damages. The driver is found not liable because the injured person was not wearing a seatbelt. The injured person then sues the car manufacturer for defective design of the seatbelt. The issue of whether the injured person was wearing a seatbelt has already been litigated and decided, and the injured person is collaterally estopped from relitigating that issue.
  • A landlord sues a tenant for eviction, claiming that the tenant did not pay rent. The case goes to trial, and the judge finds that the tenant did in fact pay rent. The landlord cannot bring a subsequent eviction case on the same ground of non-payment of rent because the issue of payment was already decided in the prior case.

Legal Terms Similar to Collateral Estoppel

  • Res Judicata: A related legal doctrine that prevents a party from re-litigating the same claim or cause of action that has already been finally determined in a prior case.
  • Stare Decisis: A legal principle that requires courts to follow precedent and apply the same legal reasoning to similar cases with similar facts.
  • Judicial Estoppel: A legal doctrine that prevents a party from taking a position in a subsequent case that is inconsistent with a position they took in a prior case.