What is res judicata?
What is the legal definition of res judicata?
What is the difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel?
In this article, we will break down the doctrine of res judicata from a legal perspective so you know all there is to know about it.
We will look at the legal objective res judicata, its elements, conditions to prove, categories, exceptions and more.
You may even discover things you did not know before!
Are you ready?
Let’s get started…
Table of Contents
What is res judicata?
Res judicata is a Latin term meaning “a matter judged”, “a matter decided” or “a thing adjudged”.
In practical terms, what res judicata means is that when a lawsuit is judged between the parties, the matter can no longer be relitigated by the parties for the same thing.
The objective is to give finality to the judgment of the court so a cause of action is permanently and definitively resolved.
The term res judicata is often used interchangeably with the term “claim preclusion”.
Claim preclusion means that a person is prohibited or precluded from filing a claim or action against another.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, res judicata is defined as:
“a matter finally decided on its merits by a court having competent jurisdiction and not subject to litigation again between the same parties”
It’s a matter decided on the “merits” by a court having “competent jurisdiction”.
What are the objectives of res judicata in law?
The concept of res judicata in law has several important purposes.
The principle of res judicata allows litigants to walk away from a lawsuit knowing that the matter is resolved and they can move on with their lives.
They will have the assurance that they’ll exercise their best efforts in one lawsuit and then live with the outcome, no matter good or bad.
Claim preclusion brings efficiency to the legal system.
Imagine if the same person can file the same lawsuit multiple times.
The court system would get overloaded with lawsuits particularly between the same litigants asking the same thing.
Efficiently using court resources is important to allow all individuals to present their dispute to the court for relief.
In the modern times, the volume of litigation has risen to a point where the efficiency of the judicial system is under significant strain.
It is important to limit litigation to one single controversy to ensure the efficient functioning of the system.
Res judicata promotes fairness.
Would it be fair that a wealthy litigant having the means to pursue the same person multiple times when the defendant does not have the means to pay for costly litigation?
By rendering a firm and final decision in a case, the judgment of the court will put an end to the dispute ensuring the fair treatment of litigants.
Res judicata will limit the potential of a plaintiff to legally harass a defendant with respect to the same issue.
Another important policy pursued by preclusion is to avoid conflicting judgments.
The same case between the same parties can be judged one way by one judge and another way by another judge.
The law is not always a science where you have a clear input and you get a clear output.
A judge appreciates evidence, considers witness credibility and evaluates the case in its entirety.
If a judgment from the court is not given finality, a losing plaintiff can relitigate the matter and win this time.
Another litigant may continuously file the same lawsuit to get awarded higher damages.
Res judicata prevents conflicting and inconsistent judgments from the court.
What are the elements of res judicata?
To succeed in presenting a res judicata argument in court, you will need to demonstrate three elements:
- Identical claim
- Identical parties
- Final judgment
Let’s look at each of these elements.
The court will first look at establishing if a claim filed by a litigant is identical to a previous claim or should have been raised in the previous lawsuit.
For example, a person sues another person for direct damages resulting from a breach of contract due to the person failing to perform his or her obligations.
Imagine that the court rejects the claim on its merits.
The same person files another lawsuit claiming damages for indirect damages on the basis of the same contract and the same facts invoked for the breach of contract.
The doctrine of res judicata will apply as the person should have invoked indirect damages based on the same facts giving rise to the breach of contract.
The courts will use a “transaction” or “occurrence” test to determine whether a claim is identical or should have been raised in the initial lawsuit for the application of res judicata.
The second element for the courts to consider is if the parties to the new lawsuit are the same as a previous one.
If the parties are identical or a party was in privity with the parties in the first lawsuit, the court may apply the res judicata principle.
For example, imagine John sues Mike for breach of contract and his claim is rejected by the court.
If John sues Mike again for breach of contract since the parties are identical to the original case, the principle of res judicata will apply.
Let’s look at an example when there is privity between the parties but the parties are not exactly the same.
This is often the case when corporations are involved in a lawsuit.
Imagine Company ABC files a lawsuit against Company XYZ for unfair competition practices.
The court rejects ABC’s claim.
If ABC gets bought over by a new company NewCo, NewCo cannot file a lawsuit against XYZ once more for unfair competition practices due to the privity that exists between ABC and NewCo.
The third element considered by the court is to determine if a final judgment was rendered in a previous lawsuit definitively settling the dispute relating to the event or transaction.
A final judgment is a judgment that puts a definitive end to the legal proceedings between the parties.
An appealed judgment is not considered to be a final judgment.
As a result, res judicata will not apply.
However, if a judgment is appealed but the appeal does not succeed or the original judgment not appealed at all, then you have a final judgment.
When is res judicata applied?
Res judicata can be applied in the following instances:
- With respect to a final judgment on the merits of a case
- With respect to interlocutory judgments that have a result of putting an end to the legal proceedings
Let’s look at each of these in order.
A judgment “on the merits” is a judgment rendered by the court once all the evidence is presented by the parties in support of the entirety of their claim.
When the parties are heard on the merits, it means that they’ve had the chance to gather their evidence, depose witnesses, prepare themselves for trial, attend the trial and get a final judgment.
Once the judgment is rendered and not appealed, the judgment will become firm, final and no longer subject to change.
The doctrine of res judicata can also apply to interlocutory judgments.
An interlocutory judgment is a ruling or court decision rendered during the legal proceedings.
In most cases, interlocutory judgments do not put an end to the legal proceedings.
However, if an interlocutory judgment puts an end to the legal proceedings, the principle of claim preclusion can apply.
For example, a judge dismisses a case right in the outset.
If the judge dismisses a case with prejudice and the losing party does not appeal the matter, then preclusion will apply.
On the other hand, a judgment on a dismissal of a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, improper venue or improper service will not lead to res judicata.
Similarly, claim preclusion can apply to counterclaims.
This is an important concept to note.
If a person did not assert a counterclaim in a lawsuit and a judge renders a final judgment, the person will be precluded from filing a new lawsuit if the claim asserted will rely on the same facts of the same transaction for instance.
However, if the counterclaim relies on other facts or other claims, that may validly be filed in court without the risk of getting barred due to res judicata.
What are the res judicata categories?
The doctrine of res judicata will be applied in two situations:
- A losing plaintiff tries to sue again (Bar)
- A winning plaintiff tries to bonify the winnings (Merger)
Let’s briefly look at each instance.
Losing plaintiff (Bar)
In this case, a person who loses a lawsuit cannot sue the other person for the same cause of action taking a second kick at the can.
For example, a person files a lawsuit against another for $100,000.
The court fully rejects the case in a final judgment.
The losing plaintiff files a new lawsuit again for $100,000 in an attempt to try winning the case a second time.
In this case, the losing party is legally barred from filing another lawsuit, for the same cause of action, against the same defendant.
Winning plaintiff (Merger)
A merger is the opposite of the concept of the bar concept.
Instead of dealing with a losing party looking to win, you are dealing with a winning party looking further bonify the winnings.
A winning party to a lawsuit is precluded or legally barred from suing the same defendant once the matter is decided by the court.
The example here is that a person wins his or her lawsuit for $100,000.
After winning the case, the same person turns around and sues the same defendant for the same cause of action but this time for $1,000,000.
Based on the preclusion law, the winning plaintiff could not sue the defendant anymore once the initial case was decided for $100,000.
How do you invoke res judicata?
In most jurisdictions, the argument of res judicata is raised as an affirmative defence.
In other words, the arguments of res judicata are not raised by filing a motion in court.
When a plaintiff files a lawsuit against the defendant, the defendant must raise an affirmative defence to attack the validity of the lawsuit on the basis that the issue or controversy has already been dealt with.
If the parties do not raise the res judicata argument and litigate the case, they risk facing conflicting judgments.
It is important to assess a lawsuit and quickly determine if the argument of res judicata should be invoked to prevent complicating the issue.
What are the exceptions to res judicata?
An exception to the doctrine of res judicata is when a party appeals the decision of the court within the required timeline.
Preclusion will apply to a judgment that is no longer subject to an appeal.
The appeal is considered to be the continuation of the same lawsuit as if the judgment has not reached its “finality”.
Another exception is when a party files a collateral attack against a judgment.
A collateral attack can be a challenge on procedural or jurisdictional issues affecting the authority or competence of the court.
Res judicata and collateral estoppel
What’s the difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel?
The doctrine of res judicata and collateral estoppel are similar but not the same.
Collateral estoppel is a cause of action that has not been litigated before but the underlying issue or cause has been litigated before.
For a party to invoke collateral estoppel, the elements to demonstrate are:
- The issue of the first and second lawsuit are identical
- The issue was litigated
- A final judgment was rendered resolving the issue
If the “issue” was litigated, the collateral estoppel doctrine can apply.
The second factor differs from the notion of res judicata.
While in res judicata, a party may be barred to pursue a matter if they “should have” raised a claim when the matter was being litigated and failed to do so, with collateral estoppel, the defendant will not be in collateral estoppel if they did not raise the issue.
For a collateral estoppel doctrine to apply, the issue should have actually been litigated.
Frequently asked questions
What is the doctrine of res judicata?
Res judicata is a doctrine stating that litigants are barred from relitigating the same issue when the court has already rendered a final judgment on that issue.
When a court settles a controversy or dispute between the parties in a conclusive judgment, the parties can no longer file subsequent lawsuits on the same issue.
What is the difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel?
Res judicata is when a final judgment precludes the parties from litigating the same issue that was litigated or should have been raised when the matter was litigated.
Collateral estoppel is when the parties are precluded from litigating the same issue on a different cause of action involving the same parties.
What is claim preclusion?
The primary objective of claim preclusion is to protect litigants or defendants from being harassed by repetitive lawsuits filed against them for the claim.
When the courts render a final decision on a plaintiff’s claim, the matter should be definitively resolved.
Res judicata conditions to prove?
To successfully invoke a res judicata argument, a defendant must be able to demonstrate the following:
- There is identity of cause of action
- There is identify of the parties
- There is a final judgment
Collateral estoppel conditions to prove?
To successfully invoke collateral estoppel, a defendant must be able to demonstrate the following:
- The issue was already litigated
- The same issue is raised using a different cause of action or claim
- There is identity of parties
- There is a final judgment