On April 3, 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court, in a 3-0 panel decision, ruled against the heir of a man who was fatally assaulted in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Following the incident, the man's estate and three of his four children brought wrongful death actions against Wal-Mart. Thereafter, a fourth child brought a similar but separate action against Wal-Mart for his death. The case went to trial on the claims of the estate and the three children with the jury finding that Wal-Mart was not negligent. Based on the jury's ruling in that case, Wal-Mart moved to dismiss the fourth child's action. The district court granted the motion, dismissing the fourth child's claim. The child's attorneys appealed the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court asserting that dismissal was unwarranted under Nevada's wrongful death statute.
Under that statute, NRS 41.085, "the heirs of the decedent and the personal representatives of the decedent may each maintain an action for damages" and that the causes of action "which arose out of the same wrongful act or neglect
may be joined." (Emphasis added.) The attorneys argued that because each of the children had separate claims, a ruling in one case could not bar claims of the other children. The Nevada Supreme Court disagreed and upheld dismissal of the fourth child's action citing the doctrine of issue preclusion.
Issue preclusion, also known as collateral estoppel, is a legal doctrine which prevents a person from relitigating an issue. It is applied to conserve judicial resources, maintain consistency, and avoid harassment or oppression of the adverse party. For this doctrine to apply, the following four elements must be met:
(1) the issue decided in the prior litigation must be identical to the issue presented in the current action;
(2) the initial ruling must have been on the merits and have become final;
(3) the party against whom the judgment is asserted must have been a party or in privity with a party to the prior litigation; and
(4) the issue was actually and necessarily litigated.
In holding that issue preclusion applied, the Court agreed with Wal-Mart's assertion that because the child was a beneficiary of the estate, she was adequately represented in the estate's litigation of Wal-Mart's alleged negligence in the prior action. The Court went on to find that the other elements had also been met requiring affirmance of the dismissal.
This case illustrates the importance of carefully analyzing the impact that separate but related claims may have on subsequent cases. Examples cited by the Supreme Court suggest that the court may bar claims brought by the heirs of a decedent if the decedent had previously brought a claim against the defendant even if new evidence is subsequently discovered.
If your family has suffered a wrongful death as a result of another person's negligent conduct, please give us a call to learn more about your rights. We offer free initial consultations and it won't cost you a penny to see if we can help.
Alcantara ex rel. Alcantara v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 130 Nev. Adv. Op. 28, 321 P.3d 912, 919 (2014)