ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL
Family reunions at the Halcumb homestead must have been rather awkward after sister Patsy sued her brother Ken for a hundred grand in cut timber.
Ken lived on land pursuant to a life estate, with Patsy holding the reversionary interest. Ken and his buddy Troy Denton decided to harvest the timber and sell it, thereby committing waste on the property. Sister Patsy sued brother Ken and collected $32,000. Only half a loaf, it turns out – Patsy had demanded treble damages under Arkansas’ wrongful cutting law – a statute similar to one in many states, which punishes wrongful taking of timber by tripling the damages to be paid by the wrongdoer. The trial court had denied treble damages, much to Patsy’s dismay.
She didn’t bother to appeal. Instead, right after Ken paid her off, she turned around and sued Troy, asking for the treble damages.
Remember your mother warning you, “Don’t make me repeat myself?” Well, maybe you remember George Santayana.
Courts don’t like to repeat themselves, either. When a court has spoken definitively on an issue, that judgment binds those parties who had a fair chance to litigate it. This, in its various flavors, is res judicata (where the claim cannot be relitigated) or collateral estoppal (where only one or more points cannot be relitigated). Either is a defense to be raised against a claim.
Troy did just that, asking the trial court to dismiss the claim under the doctrine of res judicata, literally meaning “the thing has been adjudicated.” Patsy tried the novel argument that because her brother had the right to get contribution from Troy for the money he had to cough up to big Sis, she had the right to sue Troy as well. After all, Troy was a joint tortfeasor.
But the court said that begged the question. If her brother wasn’t liable for the treble damages, his partner-in-tort hardly could be. And that was the problem. Patsy had had a fair shot at the tree harvesters in the first trial. The law guarantees everyone one fair shot, but not two. Where the second case is based on the same events as the first, the Court said, it is precluded by issue preclusion, the concept that encompasses collateral estoppel, res judicata, and claims preclusion.
That just makes good sense — both from the standpoint of judicial economy and everyone’s interest in seeing litigation have some reasonable and final endpoint.
White v. Denton, 2007 Ark. App. LEXIS 824, 2007 WL 4181557 (Ark.App., Nov. 28, 2007). Patsy White owned timberland in Polk County, subject to a life estate in the property held by her brother, Ken Halcumb. In the summer of 2004, Halcumb contracted with Denton to cut and remove timber from the property. White sued her brother for conversion of the timber and for damage to the property, alleging the land sustained damage in excess of $100,000 plus more than $25,000 in cleanup and replanting costs. She asked for treble damages for the value of the converted timber.
White won a $31,202.80 judgment in 2005. In that judgment, the trial court denied White’s prayer for treble damages, finding that Arkansas law on treble damages for wrongful cutting of timber did not apply. The Court also refused to award damages for clean-up or replanting of the timber. She did not appeal, and her brother paid. A month later, she sued Denton for trespass and conversion of her timber, again asking for treble damages. Denton asked for summary judgment, asserting that White’s complaint was barred by the doctrine of res judicata, having been by the judgment she got against her brother. The trial court agreed and dismissed White’s complaint. While appealed.
Held: Denton is off the hook. White argued that the recovery of a judgment against one joint tortfeasor did not discharge the other joint tortfeasor. She said that Denton acted “jointly” with her brother to commit the torts of trespass and conversion of her timber, but contended that Denton is “independently liable” for those acts. She argued that her cause of action against Denton is not barred by res judicata because she hadn’t had a full opportunity to pursue Denton as a joint tortfeasor. She acknowledged that she received in damages the same amount of money that Halcumb sought to collect from the timber, but she contended that the judgment did not include the remaining damages that she claimed.
The Court said that the term “res judicata” encompassed both issue and claim-preclusion. When a case is based on the same events as the subject matter of a previous lawsuit, res judicata will apply even if the subsequent lawsuit raises new legal issues and seeks additional remedies. The key question regarding the application of res judicata is whether the party against whom the earlier decision is being asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in question. While state law established a common policy for loss distribution among joint tortfeasors, it didn’t give a plaintiff the right to sue each of multiple tortfeasors individually for the same damages. The Court noted that White recovered a judgment for the very claims that she subsequently attempted to assert against Denton. If she was unsatisfied with the amount of the judgment, the Court said, her remedy was to appeal, not a new suit against someone she could have included in the first action.
Here, the Court held, White’s suit against Denton arose from the same wrongful cutting of her timber and the damages that she sought were identical. While Patsy arguably asserted a somewhat different legal theory – negligence – as a basis for imposing liability against Denton, however, that fact made no difference.
– Tom Root