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Bruszewski v. United States.

decided.: April 11, 1950.


Author: Hastie

Before GOODRICH, McLAUGHLIN, and HASTIE, Circuit Judges.

HASTIE, Circuit Judge.

Appellant, Bruszewski, a longshoreman, suffered personal injuries while working upon a docked ship owned by the United States and serviced by Isthmian Steamship Company under a standard General Agency Service agreement between that corporation and the United States. Claiming that his injuries were caused by the negligence of those operating the ship and the unseaworthiness of the vessel, Bruszewski first sued Isthmian Steamship Company as a principal responsible for the acts of the crew and the condition of the vessel. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's case, the trial judge ruled (1) that no lack of due care on the part of the crew had been proved, and (2) that seaworthiness had not been warranted by the defendant to the plaintiff. Accordingly a verdict was directed for the defendant. On appeal this court affirmed the judgment.*fn1

Thereafter appellant instituted the present libel secking to impose responsibility upon the United States for his injury, predicating his claim upon the same alleged negligence of the crew and unseaworthiness of the vessel as in the Isthmian case.

The United States pleaded res judicata. The district court considered the entire Isthmian record and then sustained a motion to dismiss reasoning (1) that the finding of no negligence in the Isthmian case was decisive against the claim of negligence here, and (2) that the United States had not warranted seaworthiness to Bruszewski.


The ruling concerning res judicata presents the principal question on this appeal. The issue is a narrow one since the same injury occurring in the same manner is the gravamen of both suits. In both the claim of negligence depends on the same acts or omissions of the same persons in the actual operation of the ship. They differ only in the claimant's applicant of the doctrine of respondeat superior; in the first suit so as to make Isthmian Steamship Company the responsible principal, and here, the United States.

This second effort to prove negligence is comprehended by the generally accepted precept that a party who has had one fair and full opportunity to prove a claim and has failed in that effort, should not be permitted to go to trial on the merits of that claim a second time. Both orderliness and reasonable time saving in judicial administration require that this be so unless some overriding consideration of fairness to a litigant dictates a different result in the circumstances of a particular case.

The countervailing consideration urged here is lack of mutuality of estoppel. In the present suit Bruszewski would not have been permitted to take advantage of an earlier affirmative finding of negligence, had such finding been made in the Isthmian case. For that reason he argues that he should not be bound by a contrary finding in that case. But a finding of negligence in the Isthmian case would not have been binding against the United States because the United States had no opportunity to contest the issue there. The finding of no negligence on the other hand was made after full opportunity to Bruszewski on his own election to prove the very matter which he now urges a second time. Thus, no unfairness results here from estoppel which is not mutual.*fn2 In reality the argument of appellant is merely that the application of res judicata in this case makes the law asymmetrical. But the achievement of substantial justice rather than symmetry is the measure of the fairness of the rules of res judicata.

Other cases have approved findings or res judicata in closely analogous situations upon reasoning applicable here. E. I. DuPont DeNemours & Co. v. Richmond Guano Co., 4 Cir., 1924, 297 F. 580; Bernhard v. Bank of America Nat. Trust & Savings Association, 1942, 19 Cal.2d 807, 122 P.2d 892; Coca-Cola Company v. Pepsi-Cola Company, Del.Super.1934, 6 W.W.Harr. 124, 172 A. 260; City of Richmond v. Davis, 1923, 135 Va. 319, 116 S.E. 492. Particularly noteworthy and relevant are situations in which an action against a master for an alleged negligent act of his servant has resulted in a finding of no negligence and this finding is subsequently held to be res judicata in an action against the servant for the same alleged negligence. Giedrewicz v. Donovan, 1932, 277 Mass. 563, 179 N.E. 246; Emery v. Fowler, 1855, 39 Me. 326, 63 Am.Dec. 627; Myhra v. Park, 1935, 193 Minn. 290, 258 N.W. 515.*fn3 In all, we are satisfied that the present application of res judicata is both sound in principle and in accord with a substantial body of well-reasoned decisions.

The question whether "privity" exists between the United States and Isthmian Steamship Company was argued to this court as relevant to the application of res judicata.

Where the party to be bound in a second proceeding is different from the party against whom the original adjudication was made, a close relationship between them is a requirement of fairness and may be necessary to provide due process of law. Thus, the rule that only parties and privies are bound by a prior judgment is unquestionably correct. In the present case the very party against whom the first judgment was rendered is to be bound in the subsequent action.

Where different plaintiffs sue the same defendant in successive suits, many courts have questioned the fairness of invoking res judicata against the defendant unless a significant relationship can be found between the plaintiffs.*fn4 But where, as in this case, res judicata is invoked against a plaintiff who has twice asserted essentially the same claim against different defendants, courts have, as indicated in the cases above cited,*fn5 enlarged the area of res judicata beyond any definable categories of privity between the defendants.*fn6 Certainly the cases already cited show that the moving party has been bound by prior adjudication against him in situations where the relation between successive defendants was no closer or more significant than that ...

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