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A finding by the Court of Claims, in dismissing plaintiff's claim against the State of New York, that plaintiff was contributorily negligent and that his negligence was a substantial factor in causing the motor vehicle accident that was the basis of his claim, bars recovery by him in an action in the Supreme Court against the driver of the other vehicle involved, since although the disposition in the Court of Claims was predicated both upon its conclusion that there had been no proof of negligence on the part of the State of New York and on its further finding that plaintiff had been contributorily negligent, the recognized principle that conclusive effect is not to be accorded a finding which is but an alternative ground for the prior court's decision because it cannot be said to have been essential to the judgment rendered should not be applied rigidly to deny issue preclusion in the present instance.
Following an automobile accident, plaintiff, Thomas Malloy, and defendant, Douglas Trombley, sued each other for negligence in state court. Both sued a state police officer involved in the accident in the Court of Claims based on the officer's negligence. The Court of Claims found both claimants failed to prove negligence on the part of the state and that each were contributory negligent, barring recovery against the state. Defendant thereafter filed a supplemental answer in state court and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the finding of contributory negligence on the part of plaintiff barred recovery in state court. The district court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.
Did the finding of contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff in the separate action against the state bar recovery by plaintiff in the present action on grounds of collateral estoppel?
On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court's grant of defendant's motion for summary judgment on the grounds of issue preclusion or collateral estoppel. According to the court, the finding that plaintiff was contributorily negligent, and that his negligence was a substantial factor in causing the motor vehicle accident that was the basis of his claim, barred recovery by him in an action in the Supreme Court against the defendant. The issue of plaintiff's contributory negligence was actually and fully litigated and none of the grounds recognized for exceptions to the general rule of issue preclusion were found.