The recent case of California State University – Fullerton (CSUF) v. WCAB (Miranda) (2012) 77 Cal.Comp.Cases 550, dealt with collateral estoppel issues as an asserted defense in workers’ compensation. The applicant was employed for the defendant during the period of July 2005 through May 2006. During this period of time, construction was occurring on the defendant’s property in close proximity to the applicant’s work site. Ultimately, the applicant began to experience respiratory problems and it was determined that he had contracted Valley Fever. The applicant filed a workers’ compensation claim which was accepted by the defendants as AOE/COE.

At the same time, the applicant filed a civil action against the construction company in charge of erecting the parking garage. It was alleged that their negligence caused the applicant to inhale airborne fungus causing Valley Fever. In the civil case, the trial court granted the construction company’s summary judgment finding that the applicant had failed to demonstrate that a duty had been breached with regard to his Valley Fever injuries or that a triable issue of fact with regard to causation existed.

The defendant contended that the summary judgment issued by the civil court provided it with an affirmative defense of collateral estoppel that precluded the applicant from obtaining any workers’ compensation benefits. The matter proceeded to trial and ultimately the WCJ issued a F&A finding that the applicant had in fact sustained an injury AOE/COE and that the applicant’s claim was not barred by the affirmative defense of collateral estoppel. The defendants sought reconsideration. The WCJ recommended that reconsideration be denied. The WCJ noted that in order for collateral estoppel to apply, three items must be demonstrated:

  1. The issue decided in the previous suit must identical to the issue to be relitigated;
  2. There was a final judgment on the merits in the prior suit;
  3. The party against whom the pleading was asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the previous suit.

The WCJ essentially indicated that the last two elements were met but the first element which indicated that the issues must be identical was not met. In the civil action, the applicant sued for damages based on the theory that the defendants negligently stockpiled and left uncovered mounds of excavated dirt on an adjacent lot to the applicant’s workplace. Summary judgment was confirmed in the civil case indicating that the applicant did not satisfy the proximate cause requirement under tort law. The court found that the applicant failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to causation because the applicant did not provide scientific proof that the dust or dirt from the location at the work site, as opposed to any other specific dirt pile, was the source of the fungal spore that infected him. There was no determination in the civil court as to whether the applicant contracted Valley Fever on the job.

In the civil court, the rules of tort law require that the applicant prove proximate causation by a specific certainty and that the plaintiff must also prove negligence. In the workers’ compensation forum, however, liability for workers’ compensation shall exist against the employer for an injury sustained arising out of and in the course of employment without regard to negligence. (Emphasis added by WCJ.) The judge further noted that, as opposed to the requirement in the civil arena where a plaintiff must prove causation by a scientific certainty, in a workers’ compensation case the injured worker’s burden of proof is to prove injury by reasonable medical probability. The judge noted that one may still be successful in workers’ compensation case in the absence of proof of proximate causation by a scientific certainty. Even when the exact mechanism of injury is unclear or unknown, industrial causation may be found.

The court also noted that Labor Code section 3600(a)(3) provides that injuries must be proximately caused by employment and that by the defendant’s admission at trial, this had been demonstrated. In short, the court determined that the issue of causation was a different standard than that needed in a civil action. As such, the defendant was unable to prove that the issues in the civil action and the workers’ compensation action were identical.

Ultimately the Petition for Reconsideration was denied. The defendants filed a Petition for Writ of Review which was also denied.

As this case notes, collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, bars re-litigation of an issue decided in a previous proceeding when the three rules enumerated above are proven.

The party asserting collateral estoppel bears the burden of establishing these requirements. As this case demonstrates, issue preclusion by way of collateral estoppel, especially as it pertains to causation, is a difficult defense to prevail upon if the issue previously litigated was in a civil forum. There are differing standards in the civil forum versus the workers’ compensation forum. In this particular case, it was particularly difficult to prevail in that defendants admitted injury AOE/COE. In the civil case, there was no admission of liability.

If you are considering asserting collateral estoppel in a workers’ compensation forum based upon a prior civil case, consideration should also be given to alternative defenses including raising the issue of AOE/COE. If you admit to AOE/COE in such a case, you may be significantly handicapping any chances of success. (In this particular case there was no discussion as to why the original injury was admitted by the defendants in the workers’ compensation matter and it is also unclear as to whether a med-legal evaluation was completed which led to the admission of AOE/COE.)