December 20, 2005
Case Law Development: Divorce Does not Preclude Claim for Personal Injury
The New York Court of Appeals holds that Interspousal personal injury tort claims and divorce claims are not part of the same transaction for res judicata purposes The court reversed the trial court, which had found that "the allegations in Wife's personal injury action were "virtually identical" to those in her counterclaim for divorce and arose out of the same transaction or series of transactions." The appellate division affirmed.
The highest court, however, disagreed, finding that the policy considerations in divorce cases argued against applying res judicata.
Xiao Yang Chen v. Fischer, 2005 N.Y. LEXIS 3344; 2005 NY Slip Op 9572 (December 15, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.courts.state.ny.us/ctapps/decisions/dec05/152opn05.pdf (last visited December 19, 2005 bgf)
"It is apparent that personal injury tort actions and divorce actions do not constitute a convenient trial unit. The purposes behind the two are quite different. They seek different types of relief and require different types of proof. Moreover, a personal injury action is usually tried by a jury, in contrast to a matrimonial action, which is typically decided by a judge when the issue of fault is not contested. Further, personal injury attorneys are compensated by contingency fee, whereas matrimonial attorneys are prohibited from entering into fee arrangements that are contingent upon the granting of a divorce or a particular property settlement or distributive award."
"Significant policy considerations also support this conclusion. To require joinder of interspousal personal injury claims with the matrimonial action would complicate and prolong the divorce proceeding. This would be contrary to the goal of expediting these proceedings and minimizing the emotional damage to the parties and their families. Delaying resolution of vital matters such as child support and custody or the distribution of assets to await the outcome of a personal injury action could result in extreme hardship and injustice to the families involved, especially for victims of domestic violence. In addition, parties should be encouraged to stipulate to, rather than litigate, the issue of fault."