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Nielson v. Spanaway General Medical Clinic Inc.

February 28, 1997


Appeal from Superior Court of Pierce County. Docket No: 92-2-07320-5. Date filed: 03/22/95. Judge signing: Hon. D G. Steiner.

Petition for Review Granted July 8, 1997,

Bridgewater, J. We concur: Houghton, C.j., Armstrong, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bridgewater

BRIDGEWATER, J.-Christina Nielson and her parents, Bradley and Stacey Nielson, (Nielsons) appeal the order of partial summary judgment that precludes them from relitigating damages based upon a prior adjudication awarding damages in federal court. We hold that collateral estoppel applies and that they are precluded from relitigating the issue of damages in state court. We affirm.

After Christina, a minor, suffered permanent neurological injuries resulting from undiagnosed congestive heart failure, the Nielsons sued Madigan Army Medical Center in federal court (28 U.S.C. sec. 1346(b) (1993)). They sued Spanaway General Medical Clinic, Inc., and Dr. Karel Pokorny in state court. Dr. Pokorny had examined Christina without diagnosing her serious heart condition. The parties dispute whether Dr. Pokorny advised that Christina obtain immediate emergency pediatric care.

An hour after leaving the clinic, Christina arrived at Madigan. Madigan failed to diagnose Christina's heart condition and permanent neurological injuries occurred. The federal trial with the United States as a defendant was a mandatory bench trial and concluded before the state trial began.

The Nielsons could have requested the federal court to obtain supplemental jurisdiction over the clinic and have a jury decide the state claim, but did not. There is no evidence that the Nielsons sought to stay the federal proceedings until the state proceedings concluded. The federal court determined that Madigan's negligence proximately caused Christina's permanent neurological injuries and awarded her and her parents monetary damages to place them as nearly as possible in the condition they would have occupied if the wrong had not occurred. Damages of $3.1 million were awarded to Christina; *fn1 an appeal and cross-appeal followed, but the parties settled with the government for $2.85 million before their appeals were considered.

The parties dispute whether Dr. Pokorny's treatment of Christina was negligent. But the parties agreed that no injury to Christina occurred between the time she saw Dr. Pokorny at Spanaway Clinic and when she entered Madigan. The Nielsons pursued their state claim against the defendants; but their state claim was limited by a partial summary judgment that collaterally estopped them from relitigating the amount of compensatory damages already litigated and decided in federal court. The Nielsons contend they should not be precluded from relitigating the issue of damages in state court because the issue was not fully and fairly litigated and because they have a constitutional right to a jury determination of damages.

An appellate court reviewing a summary judgment considers the matter de novo and makes the same inquiry as the trial court; summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue about any material fact and, assuming facts most favorable to the nonmoving party, establish that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Wilson v. Steinbach, 98 Wash. 2d 434, 437, 656 P.2d 1030 (1982).

Generally, a party is estopped from relitigating an issue in a subsequent action when the party previously adjudicated the issue to finality. The policy underlying the doctrine is that a claimant should be entitled to one, but not more than one, fair adjudication of an issue.

McDaniels v. Carlson, 108 Wash. 2d 299, 303, 738 P.2d 254 (1987). A nonparty to a prior adjudication may use the collateral estoppel doctrine defensively against a party to an earlier action. Dunlap v. Wild, 22 Wash. App. 583, 591 P.2d 834 (1979). The party invoking collateral estoppel has the burden of proving the facts needed to sustain it. McDaniels, 108 Wash. 2d at 303-04; State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Amirpanahi, 50 Wash. App. 869, 871, 751 P.2d 329, review denied, 111 Wash. 2d 1012 (1988). To determine whether a party is estopped from relitigating an issue decided in a prior forum, the court must address four questions:

(1) Was the issue decided in the prior adjudication identical with the one presented in the action in question? (2) Was there a final judgment on the merits? (3) Was the party against whom the plea is asserted a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication? And (4) will the application of the doctrine not work an inJustice on the party against whom the doctrine is to be applied? If each of these questions is answered affirmatively, the party is estopped.

Larsen v. Farmers Ins. Co., 80 Wash. App. 259, 262-63, 909 P.2d 935 (1996) (footnote omitted).

We answer the first and third questions affirmatively. Spanaway Clinic argues that the issues of compensatory damages are identical, and that the damages attributable to the clinic are not separate and distinct from the damages attributable to Madigan. The Nielsons agree that ...

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