Collateral estoppel may prevent a litigant in a personal injury action from relitigating a fact in issue determined against that litigant in a personal injury protection action against her insurer in a trial court.
Plaintiff injured woman filed a motion for partial summary judgment in her tort action brought against defendants, a car owner and its driver. The injured woman pursued personal injury protection (PIP) medical benefits from her insurer in private arbitration while also bringing suit against defendants. The case arose out of the scenario in which the same insurance company happened to cover both vehicles involved in a roadway accident. The PIP arbitrator had concluded that the injured woman's primary injuries were proximately caused by the accident and awarded her benefits. The injured woman sought to preclude defendants from relitigating the arbitrator's finding that her partial right foot amputation was proximately caused by the motor vehicle accident. In connection with her motion, the injured woman certified that she was not seeking any damages from defendants in excess of the $1 million liability coverage afforded under their policy with the insurer. Defendants opposed the motion, principally arguing that they were not parties to the PIP arbitration and, therefore, were not fairly bound by any of the arbitrator's findings.
Do principles of "offensive" collateral estoppel bind the defendant insureds in the action to the PIP arbitrator's finding of proximate cause, in a situation where the plaintiff has agreed to limit her tort damages to the insurer's policy limits?
The court denied the injured woman's motion for partial summary judgment. The court agreed with defendants and held that, even though defendants had certain common goals with their insurer, their interests were not entirely synonymous and the case presented a clear and convincing need for a new determination as to whether amputation was or was not proximately caused by the motor vehicle accident. The court found that the defendant insureds were not estopped by the PIP outcome from relitigating issues of proximate causation in this tort action.