Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Word of the Month for September 2013: Res Judicata

a legal do over is like a mulligan in golfHow does it go?  The reward for having done a thing well is not having to do it again?  Apparently, who ever said that has never cut the grass or do any manual labor or ever lost a lawsuit.  The thing with law and law stuff is that because the legal system is so adversarial, the party that loses generally always feels they got the short end of the stick.  Rarely does someone lose in law and thinks, "Oh, well, that's the way the ball bounces!"  Nope, often the losing party is still out for blood and the more the merrier - which all brings us to the word of the month.

The word for this month is RES JUDICATA.  According to Black's Law Dictionary, Res Judicata is Latin for "a thing adjudicated" and is an affirmative defense barring the same parties from litigating a second lawsuit on the same claim, or any other clam arising from the same transaction or series of transactions and that could have been - but was not - raised in the first suit.  The essential elements of Res Judicata are:
  1. There was an earlier decision on a case
  2. There is a a final judgment on the merits of the/a merits of a case
  3. The parties (or their parties in privity) were the same parties involved in the 1st case.
So, for example, say Dick and Jane contract with Bob to build them a house - who held himself out to be a contractor (but was not).  Say Bob takes the money, skips town, and does not build the house.  Dick and Jane sue Bob for Breach of Contract and get a judgement against Bob.  Later, Dick and Jane find out they could have also sued Bob for Fraud and try to re-file another action against Bob.  The Fraud action would be an barred under the doctrine of res judicata because Dick and Jane could have brought the action for Fraud against Bob in the first case, but didn't.  For further discussion on contracts and res judicata, might I suggest you look at American Jurisprudence, 2d (West).

Another one?  Say you are looking to get divorced from your wife.  Say, wife just had a kid and you're saying it's not yours.  Say judge orders a paternity test.  Say the paternity test comes back and says the kid is really not yours and the judge enters a final decision as to the true paternity of the child.  Later, ex-wife tries to demand child support for that child.  Her claim may be barred under the doctrine of res judicata because the issue of paternity had already been decided by the paternity test/final decree.  I say may because some states don't care what a paternity test says - they just want someone to take care of the kid.  So, look to the laws of your jurisdiction to find out how the law applies to you.  You may also want to take a look at the American Law Reports, 2d (West) and look in the index under res judicata and paternity.

One more?  Say Dick (defendant) was sued for negligence by Paul (plaintiff).  Say Dick lost and had to pay court costs and fees to the Paul.  Say Jane (Dick's wife) later sues Paul the plaintiff to recover costs lost from their community (i.e. the community of the Dick and Jane marriage).  Because Jane is married to Dick, Jane's claim may be barred under the doctrine of res judicata because Jane would be a party in privity with Dick.  For more information on res judicata in negligence actions, take a look at Proof of Facts 2d (West).

Fact is, there are a whole bunch of resources that deal with res judicata as well as tons more legal concepts that you've probably never even dreamed of - all waiting to be discovered at your local county law library.