Estoppel Definition and Legal Meaning

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

What is Estoppel?

n. a bar or impediment (obstruction) which precludes a person from asserting a fact or a right or prevents one from denying a fact. Such a hindrance is due to a person’s actions, conduct, statements, admissions, failure to act or judgment against the person in an identical legal case. Estoppel includes being barred by false representation or concealment (equitable estoppel), failure to take legal action until the other party is prejudiced by the delay (estoppel by laches), and a court ruling against the party on the same matter in a different case (collateral estoppel).

History and Meaning of Estoppel

Estoppel is a legal doctrine that prevents a person from asserting or denying a fact that is inconsistent with their previous statements, actions, or behavior. The purpose is to prevent injustice by prohibiting a person from being able to change their position in a way that would harm another party who relied on their previous representation or conduct.

The origins of the doctrine can be traced back to English common law, where it was used in property disputes to prevent a party who had previously acknowledged another's ownership of land from later denying it. Over time, the doctrine has been expanded and applied in a variety of legal contexts beyond property disputes.

Examples of Estoppel

  1. Equitable Estoppel: Suppose a seller of a car tells the buyer that the vehicle has never been in an accident. The buyer relies on this statement and purchases the car. Later, the buyer discovers that the car was in fact in an accident before the sale. The seller is estopped from denying the truth of their previous representation.

  2. Collateral Estoppel: In a criminal case, a defendant is charged with robbery. The defendant denies involvement, but is convicted. In a subsequent civil trial between the victim and the defendant, the defendant is estopped from denying their guilt since it was already established in the criminal case.

  3. Estoppel by Laches: A property owner fails to pay property taxes for ten years. The government does not take action to collect the taxes until 15 years later, when they place a lien on the property. The owner is estopped from arguing that the lien is invalid due to the government's delay in collecting the taxes.

Legal Terms Similar to Estoppel

  1. Res judicata: A related doctrine that prevents a party from relitigating a claim that has already been decided in a prior case.

  2. Waiver: A voluntary relinquishment or abandonment of a legal right or privilege.

  3. Ratification: The act of accepting or affirming a prior act that would not have been valid without such acceptance.