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You Can't Sue Twice; The Doctrine of Res Judicata

Res Judicata is a legal principle which prevents a claimant from having their legal issues decided twice.  Once you’ve had your day in Court on an issue you are stuck with the result (subject to an appeal).  You can’t sue again and have a second trial hoping for a different result.  Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Court of Appeal discussing the scope of this principle.
In today’s case (Innes v. Bui) the parties were involved in a a two vehicle intersection collision in 2001.  They approached each other from opposite directions.  The Plaintiff (Innes) attempted to go through the intersection and the Defendant (Bui) commenced a left turn.  The vehicles then collided.
ICBC, as is often the case in British Columbia, was the insurer for both parties.  ICBC decided that the Ms. Bui was entirely at fault.  This raised her insurance premiums.  Ms. Bui sued ICBC in small claims court arguing that she was not at fault and should have her increased premiums returned.  Eventually Ms. Innes was substituted for ICBC.   Ms. Innes was defended by an ICBC appointed lawyer.  ICBC argued that Ms. Bui was at fault.
At trial the Judge found that both Ms. Innes and Ms. Bui were ‘honest people” and he could not choose between their testimony.  The Small Claims judge dismissed the lawsuit finding that “In essence, I cannot choose between them, and to use a probably inappropriate sports metaphor, tie goes to the defendant in a case like this.  In other words, because I cannot decide who it is that I believe, I  have to dismiss the claim, and that is what I am doing.”
At the same time Ms. Innes filed a separate lawsuit against Ms. Bui in the BC Supreme Court alleging that Ms. Bui was at fault.  The Plaintiff was asking for compensation for her personal injury claims.  ICBC appointed a lawyer to Defend Ms. Bui and in this lawsuit argued that Ms. Innes was at fault.     ICBC brought a motion asking the lawsuit to be dismissed based on the principle of “res judicata“.  They argued that since the Small Claims judge already heard the issue of fault and called it a ‘tie‘ Ms. Innes’ case needs to be dismissed in the same way that Ms. Bui’s case was.
A chambers’ judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.  The Plaintiff appealed.  The BC High Court overturned the dismissal and found that the Chamber’s judge misapplied the law of ‘res judicata’.  The BC Court of Appeal provided the following useful analysis setting out the limits of the res judicata principle:

19]         There are two forms of the doctrine of res judicata: cause of action estoppel and issue estoppel.  Both operate where the court has adjudicated a cause of action between two or more parties and one of them seeks to re-litigate on the same facts.  Where the cause of action is the same, cause of action estoppel operates to prevent re-litigation of any matter that was raised or should have been raised in the prior proceeding.  Where the cause of action in the two proceedings is different, issue estoppel operates to prevent re-litigation of any issue determined in the prior proceeding.

[20]         The pre-conditions to making out issue estoppel are stated in Angle v. Minister of National Revenue, [1975] 2 S.C.R. 248 at 254:

Lord Guest in Carl Zeiss Stiftung v. Rayner & Keeler Ltd. (No. 2), at p. 935, defined the requirements of issue estoppel as:

… (1) that the same question has been decided; (2) that the judicial decision which is said to create the estoppel was final; and, (3) that the parties to the judicial decision or their privies were the same persons as the parties to the proceedings in which the estoppel is raised or their privies …..

It seems to me that in the circumstances of this case, all that had to be considered on both motions before the court was whether the criteria set out in Angle had been met and, if they had been met, whether the court should exercise its discretion against applying the doctrine of res judicata.

[30]         In my opinion, it cannot be said that the question of liability for the collision was adjudicated upon in the Small Claims proceeding.  Having decided as a fact that the parties left their respective stop signs at “more or less the same time”, the Small Claims judge failed to consider the other important factual question before him – whether Ms. Bui had her left-turn signal on.  Furthermore, he failed to consider the rules of the road imposed upon each of the parties under the applicable sections of the Motor Vehicle Act, R.S.C.B. 1996, c. 318 and how those rules would apply to the determination of responsibility in tort for the collision.  This was not a case of inevitable accident or of no negligence.  One or the other of the parties was wholly responsible, or liability was to be divided.

[31]         The reasons of the Small Claims judge fell well short of deciding the negligence question.  That issue remains alive in the Supreme Court action.  The res judicata arguments of both parties fail.

[32]         The above is enough to allow this appeal.

bc injury claims, Estoppel, icbc injury claims, Innes v. Bui, Issue Estoppel, Res Judicata

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