Collateral Estoppel and Article 75

Matter of Falzone (New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 2010 NY Slip Op 07417 (Ct. App. 2010)

At the hearing in the SUM arbitration, held about two months after the decision in the no-fault arbitration, respondent again argued that the injury was unrelated to the accident, while petitioner countered that the SUM arbitrator was bound by the prior determination of the no-fault arbitrator under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. After the hearing, in August 2008, the SUM arbitrator issued an award in favor of respondent denying SUM benefits. In a finding directly opposite that of the no-fault arbitrator, the SUM arbitrator concluded that petitioner's injury was not caused by the accident, and also found that her recovery from the other driver was more than adequate compensation for any injuries sustained in the accident.


In this appeal, we are merely applying this State's well-established rule that an arbitrator's rulings, unlike a trial court's, are largely unreviewable (see Board of Educ. of Patchogue-Medford Union Free School Dist. v Patchogue-Medford Congress of Teachers (48 NY2d 812, 813 [1979] [this Court, addressing the doctrine of res judicata, held that if a grievance is within the scope of the arbitration agreement and would do no harm to the State's public policy in favor or arbitration, further judicial inquiry into arbitrability is foreclosed and "any remaining questions, including whether a prior award constitutes a bar to the relief sought, are within the exclusive province of the arbitrator to resolve" [citations omitted]; Matter of City School Dist. of City of Tonowanda v Tonawanda Educ. Assn., 63 NY2d 846, 848 [1984] ["The effect, if any, to be given to an earlier arbitration award in subsequent arbitration proceedings is a matter for determination in that forum."]; compare with Clemens v Apple, 65 NY2d 746 [1985] and Matter of American Ins. Co. [Messinger—Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co.], 43 NY2d 184, 191 [1977] [holding that if an issue between identical parties is resolved in an arbitration proceeding, the determination as to that issue may be binding on subsequent court proceedings under the doctrine of collateral estoppel where the parties have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue]). Thus, if a court makes an error and fails to properly apply collateral estoppel, the issue can be reviewed and corrected on appeal. By contrast, if an arbitrator erred in not applying collateral estoppel, the general limitation on judicial review of arbitral awards precludes a court from [*4]disturbing the decision unless the resulting arbitral award violates a strong public policy, is irrational, or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator's power.

Here, the prior (no-fault) arbitration award involved the same parties, the same accident, the same injuries, and resolution of the same issue (causation) as the subsequent (SUM) arbitration award. Respondent insurer, a party to the prior arbitration, lost on the causation issue. Petitioner, the prevailing party on that issue in the prior arbitration, reasonably argued that collateral estoppel should apply to bar relitigation of the causation issue in the subsequent SUM arbitration. The SUM arbitrator rejected petitioner's argument, had the parties relitigate the causation issue and, contrary to the no-fault arbitrator's determination, found in respondent insurer's favor on the causation issue.

It is not for us to decide whether the SUM arbitrator erred in not applying collateral estoppel (i.e., not giving preclusive effect to the no-fault arbitrator's determination on the issue of causation). Because the SUM arbitration award was not patently irrational or so egregious as to violate public policy, the instant SUM arbitration award (and whether the SUM arbitrator erred or exceeded his authority) is beyond this Court's review powers.

Since the instant claim involves the doctrine of collateral estoppel, not res judicata, petitioner's reliance on Appellate Division decisions barring subsequent arbitrations on res judicata grounds is misplaced.

Note the dissent.


The bold is mine.


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