Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner, LLP

Court of Appeals Applies Collateral Estoppel to Workers’ Compensation Board Determination

The Court of Appeals recently held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel may be applied to Workers’ Compensation Board (“WCB”) factual determinations to essentially limit an injured worker’s sustainable causes of action in a related civil tort action commenced in New York State courts.

In Auqui v. Seven Thirty One Ltd. Partnership, — N.E.2d —, 2013 Slip Op. 00950 (2013), the WCB terminated the plaintiff’s benefits (i.e. medical treatment and compensation payments) after determining that the plaintiff was no longer disabled as a result of his accident. The Court applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to preclude the plaintiff in his personal injury case from litigating the plaintiff’s purported continuing disability and lost earnings claim beyond the date set by the WCB. The Court explained, since plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate that issue before the WCB (plaintiff was represented by counsel, presented expert testimony, submitted medical reports, and cross-examined experts), the determination of the WCB has the preclusive effect on the plaintiff in his personal injury action.

In order to achieve the maximum benefit from this collateral estoppel effect of WCB proceedings, defense counsel must be diligent in obtaining complete and up-to-date records from the WCB, including but not limited to the WCB records, carrier records, and transcripts of WCB hearings.

Practitioners should be mindful that causes of action based upon factual issues not fully litigated in WCB proceedings, such as loss of society or companionship, loss of enjoyment of life, or ongoing pain and suffering may still be viable causes of action for the injured party in the New York State courts, as suggested in the Auqui dissent. It remains to be seen how the lower courts will interpret the Auqui case in addressing the preclusive effect of WCB determinations on these causes of action.

It should also be noted that a plaintiff in a personal injury action cannot use a favorable WCB determination against the defendants in that action as such determination is not binding on defendants who were not parties to the WCB proceeding.