Collateral Estoppel

The legal term collateral estoppel refers to the common law rule that bans a person from suing, or “re-litigating,” an issue, after the court has decided that issue. This means that any issue of fact, or of law, decided in one case cannot be re-decided in another case that involves any party to the previous case. This does not bar the new lawsuit, but the decisions of fact or law that were made as part of the prior valid ruling would have to be adhered to in the new lawsuit. To explore this concept, consider the following collateral estoppel definition.

Definition of Collateral Estoppel


  1. A legal doctrine in which a judgment or ruling in one case bars a party to that case from litigating the same issue in another lawsuit.


1575-1585    Middle French estoupail

What is Estoppel

In the legal system, it is the court’s duty to ensure all parties to a civil lawsuit, or the defendant in a criminal matter, receive a fair and impartial trial. To that end, the judge sometimes puts a stop to an action, or denies the admission of certain facts, if he or she determines that the action or evidence would somehow cloud the issues. When a judge issues an “estoppel,” the party is prohibited, or “stopped,” from taking the action, presenting the evidence, or even from making a particular argument in court.

What is Collateral Estoppel

Collateral estoppel is included in the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy, though it is essentially a different concept. Double jeopardy prevents any individual from being re-tried for the same crime. Collateral estoppel prevents any party, including the prosecutor in a criminal matter, from seeking a different decision on a factual issue, or rule of law within a particular case.

There are a number of types of estoppel, each of which bars an action in court. Collateral estoppel, also known as “issue preclusion,” or “estoppel by record,” prevents any party to a lawsuit from asking the court to made a new decision on something that has already been decided in a previous lawsuit involving any of the same parties. The purpose of this is to promote consistent rulings in cases of identical facts. This principle often comes into play when related cases are tried separately.

Collateral Estoppel in a Criminal Case

The use of collateral estoppel in a criminal case may have different effects, depending on whether it is claimed by the defendant or the prosecution. When a defendant claims collateral estoppel to prevent the prosecutor from re-hashing facts or decisions made previously in the case, the claim comes enveloped in constitutional authority. If, however, the prosecutor attempts to claim collateral estoppel, there is a risk he will be seen as trying to gain some unfair advantage over the defendant.

Example of Collateral Estoppel in a Criminal Case

A civil lawsuit is filed against Norman, in which the Amanda claims Norman side-swiped her car when he was driving recklessly, under the influence of alcohol. The plaintiff’s passenger, Cindy, was very seriously injured in the accident. There were no witnesses to the accident, neither party called the police, and

Amanda could offer no proof other than her own testimony that Norman smelled heavily of alcohol. The judge rules that there is no proof of the DUI claim, and therefore that assumption cannot be made in his judgment. He then rules in favor of Norman, denying compensation to the plaintiff.

A few weeks later, the District Attorney files criminal charges against Norman for causing near-fatal injuries to Cindy while driving recklessly, under the influence. When the prosecutor attempts to have both Cindy and Amanda testify about Norman’s obvious intoxication, Norman’s attorney may claim collateral estoppel. He may argue that a decision had already been made by the civil court, regarding whether or not Norman was driving under the influence.

In this example of collateral estoppel in a criminal case, it may be considered inappropriate for the court to re-hear evidence on the same issue, and possibly make a different decision from the civil court’s ruling.

Collateral Estoppel as an Affirmative Defense

Collateral estoppel is considered an affirmative defense, which means that it is not up to the court to bring up the possibility that an issue has already been decided. Instead, the party who wants to use the doctrine must bring it up to the court. Otherwise, even if the issue actually was previously decided, collateral estoppel will be considered waived. Collateral estoppel can only be claimed when the party had a fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the previous action. If such an opportunity was denied him in state court, he may challenge that court’s procedures in a federal court appeal.

Types of Collateral Estoppel

Collateral estoppel may be claimed by either party to a legal action. In other words, both the plaintiff and defendant in a lawsuit may ask for an estoppel against the other party. Collateral estoppel used in cases involving the same parties to a previous suit is called “mutual collateral estoppel.” Non-mutual collateral estoppel may be claimed either offensively or defensively.

  • Non-Mutual Defensive Collateral Estoppel – a defendant attempts to prevent a plaintiff from re-litigating an issue that was previously decided against the plaintiff in another lawsuit against a different party.
  • Non-Mutual Offensive Collateral Estoppel – a plaintiff attempts to prevent a defendant from re-litigating an issue that was previously decided against the defendant in another lawsuit against a different party.

The issue of offensive non-mutual collateral estoppel may be unfair to defendant, as in cases of small consequence, there is a tendency to not defend the matter forcefully. Because of this, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that collateral estoppel should not be applied offensively when:

  1. The plaintiff could have joined in the previous lawsuit, but chose instead to “wait and see”
  2. Application of offensive collateral estoppel would be unfair to the defendant

This decision gives incentive to plaintiffs to include all potential defendants in the first action, so that such rulings apply to them as well. The specific rules of collateral estoppel often vary by state, making it necessary to consult the local laws.

Example of Collateral Estoppel Between a Criminal Case and Civil Lawsuit

In 1995, the case of a famous football player accused of murdering his wife and her friend entranced America, as the courtroom action was televised live. That football player, O.J. Simpson, was ultimately acquitted by the jury, after his attorneys created reasonable doubt by showing that the gloves supposedly worn by him during the killings didn’t fit.

After the criminal trial ended, the families of Nichole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, filed a civil lawsuit against O.J. for wrongful death of their family members. Their win in the civil lawsuit was made possible by the lower standard of proof required in civil court. It was only necessary to show the court that it was more likely than not that O.J. committed the murders, or hired someone to do it.

O.J. could not invoke collateral estoppel because, during the criminal trial, the victims’ families were not parties to the action, and therefore were unable to offer evidence against him. The plaintiffs won their civil lawsuit, and were awarded $8.5 million in damages.

Collateral Estoppel and the Fleeing Felon

In 2002, police officers stopped a vehicle while investigating an auto theft case. The officers told the occupants to get out of the vehicle, and put their hands on the car, which they did. One suspect, Stephen Green, kept walking around and around the car, playing “Ring-Around-the-Rosie” as he evaded the officers. After fighting with the officers, Green broke free and ran, the officers giving chase through the neighborhoods, over a fence, and across the railroad tracks, where another physical fight ensued.

Green was eventually transported to a hospital, where doctors documented his injuries, which included a fractured eye socket and fractured nose. A few weeks later, Green pled nolo contendere (“no contest”) to criminal charges of attempted theft of an automobile, and resisting arrest or obstructing a police officer.

Green later filed a civil lawsuit against two of the officers, claiming they had used excessive force in taking him into custody. The officers’ defense attorney asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit (“summary judgment”) based on the fact that Green had pled nolo contendere, arguing that success in his civil lawsuit would conflict with the fact of his previous conviction in the matter. The defendants argued that Green should be estopped from pursuing the civil lawsuit.

The Court ruled that collateral estoppel applies only when an issue of fact or law has actually been litigated, and determined in a final judgment. In Green’s case, his plea of nolo contendere could not be considered “actual litigation.” In fact, the term nolo contendere means “I will not contest it,” which essentially leaves the issues unlitigated. In this case, Green was not barred by collateral estoppel from a recovery in a civil lawsuit on the matter, even though he had pled no contest to resisting arrest. The request for a summary judgment was denied.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Affirmative Defense – The introduction of evidence in a trial that would negate, or “cancel out,” the defendant’s civil or criminal legal responsibility for the alleged act.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.