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Eckstrom v. Hansen

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

July 30, 2018

MELISSA ECKSTROM, Respondent,
v.
SIGURD HANSEN, Petitioner.

          BECKER, J.

         Respondent Melissa Eckstrom has filed a personal injury claim against her father, petitioner Sigurd Hansen, alleging that he sexually molested her when she was two years old. At the time of the alleged abuse, Eckstrom's parents had just been through an acrimonious marriage and divorce. Eckstrom's mother accused Hansen of molesting the child, and the court was called on to decide whether Hansen should be allowed to continue having residential time with her. After a full trial in March 1992, the court found that Hansen had not abused Eckstrom. Hansen asserts that the 1992 finding of no abuse estops Eckstrom from litigating the present claim. Because Eckstrom was not a party to the 1992 proceedings, the trial court properly denied Hansen's motion to dismiss.

         FACTS

         Eckstrom's parents married in 1987 and separated about a month later. Eckstrom was born in 1988. The marriage was dissolved by decree in 1989. Under the parenting plan, Eckstrom resided primarily with her mother. Hansen, a commercial fisherman who spent several months per year in Alaska, exercised his right to residential time when he was in town. Then, in 1990, the mother began to accuse Hansen of molesting the child. Although Hansen denied wrongdoing, his residential contact with his daughter was suspended by temporary order.

         Eckstrom was assessed by a number of professionals during the ensuing investigation. Sometimes she made statements that indicated Hansen had molested her. In other interviews, she denied that he had touched her inappropriately. A court-appointed psychiatrist concluded there was no convincing evidence to support the allegations of sexual abuse. A guardian ad litem appointed for Eckstrom filed a report stating his opinion that Hansen had not abused Eckstrom and recommending that his visitation with her be reinstated.

         A trial occurred in 1992 on Hansen's motion to resume residential contact with Eckstrom. The court made a finding that Hansen had not abused his daughter. The court provided for gradual reinstatement of his residential time with her, under therapeutic supervision intended to overcome the estrangement that had developed and to promote a close parent-child relationship.

         Efforts to reunite father and daughter were unsuccessful. In 1993, Hansen relinquished his parental rights. Eckstrom's mother assumed sole custody and control of the child.

         Eckstrom grew up having no contact with Hansen. In 2010, she reached out to Hansen and told him that she was planning to go to law school. She asked Hansen to give her money for tuition and other expenses, which she estimated as more than $250, 000. Hansen told her that he would first want to get to know her better. They attended a joint counseling session. They had no further contact thereafter. Eckstrom went to law school and is now a practicing attorney.

         This suit began in May 2016, when Eckstrom filed a complaint against Hansen seeking damages for child rape and molestation. Eckstrom claimed to have memories of Hansen's abuse and said that she was prepared to testify about her experience. Hansen denied liability and asserted the defenses of res judicata and collateral estoppel. He moved for dismissal in July 2016 on the ground that the 1992 finding of no abuse precluded Eckstrom's suit. The trial court denied the motion but granted Hansen's request for a certification under RAP 2.3(b)(4). This court granted discretionary review.[1]

         ANALYSIS

         Res judicata and collateral estoppel are kindred doctrines designed to prevent repetitive litigation. Bordeaux v. Ingersoll Rand Co.., 71 Wn.2d 392, 395, 429 P.2d 207 (1967). Whether an action is precluded by res judicata or collateral estoppel is reviewed de novo. Enslev v. Pitcher, 152 Wn.App. 891, 899, 222 P.3d 99 (2009). review denied. 168 Wn.2d 1028 (2010); Christensen v. Grant County Hosp. Dist. No. 1. 152 Wn.2d 299, 305, 96 P.3d 957 (2004).

         We have little difficulty concluding that res judicata does not apply here. One of the requirements of res judicata is that the two suits involve the same cause of action. Williams v. Leone & Keeble. Inc., 171 Wn.2d 726, 730, 254 P.3d 818 (2011). These two suits do not. The suit between the parents addressed Hansen's right to have residential time with his daughter, whereas Eckstrom now raises a claim for personal injury damages.

         The closer question is the application of collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion. Pederson v. Potter, 103 Wn.App. 62, 69, 11 P.3d 833 (2000), review denied. 143 Wn.2d 1006 (2001). Collateral estoppel prevents relitigation of a particular issue in a later proceeding involving the same parties, even if the later proceeding involves a different claim or cause of action. Pederson, 103 Wn.App. at 69. The requirements of collateral estoppel are: (1) the identical issue was decided in the prior action; (2) the prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits; (3) the party to be estopped was a party or in privity with a party in the earlier proceeding; and (4) precluding relitigation of the issue will not work an injustice. Williams, 171 Wn.2d at 731. When the elements of collateral estoppel are met, the doctrine serves to prevent inconvenience or harassment of parties and provides for finality in adjudications. Christensen, 152 Wn.2d at 306-07.

         The factual issue to be decided in Eckstrom's personal injury claim is whether Hansen sexually abused Eckstrom during the same time period as alleged in the 1992 proceeding. In the parenting plan trial in 1992, the trial court was presented with the identical issue and decided Hansen did not sexually abuse Eckstrom. The result was final judgment on the merits permitting Hansen to resume residential contact with his young daughter. Because the first two elements of collateral estoppel are ...


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