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Collateral Estoppel may not apply in no-fault arbitrations – so says the Fourth DepartmentJuly 9, 2009

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In a very interesting case, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department held that principles of collateral estoppel do not apply in arbitration.

Matter of Falzone v New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co. 2009 NY Slip Op 05423 (4th Dept. 2009)

In this case, a Claimant initially arbitrated a no-fault claim between himself and his insurance carrier. The issue that was arbitrated involved whether Claimant’s injuries were causally related to the motor vehicle accident. A no-fault arbitrator found the injuries to be causally related to the motor vehicle accident and awarded benefits.

The Claimant after obtaining an award for no fault benefits then sought to obtain SUM benefits arising from the same loss. Accordingly, Claimant commenced a second arbitration between himself and the same carrier upon which he was awarded no-fault benefits. The insurance carrier’s defense to payment in this SUM arbitration, similar to that in the no-fault arbitration, was that there was a lack of a causal nexus between the motor vehicle accident and the alleged injuries.

Since the parties and issues to be resolved in this SUM matter were the same as that in the no-fault matter, i.e., whether the injuries were causally related to the motor vehicle accident, you would think that principles of collateral estoppel would come into play and bind the SUM arbitrator to the same decision as that of the no-fault arbitrator. As we saw in a previous post involving the matter of Lobel v. Allstate, a no-fault arbitrator’s decision on causation will collaterally estopp a party from re-litigating a previously arbitrated issue in Court. Yet, the SUM arbitrator, aware that the prior arbitrator found a causal nexus existed between the motor vehicle accident and the injuries, nonetheless ruled that there was no causal connection between the injuries and the motor vehicle accident.

An Article 75 challenge was lodged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the petition, reversed the SUM arbitrator’s decision and properly found that the results of the no-fault arbitration collaterally estopped the parties from contesting the causal relationship between the motor vehicle accident and the injuries at the SUM arbitration. Thus, the SUM arbitratror, as a matter of law, had to find that there was a causal relationship between the motor vehicle accident and the loss. The carrier appealed and the Fourth Department surprisingly reversed the order and judgment of the Supreme Court as set forth herein:

We agree with respondent that Supreme Court erred in granting claimant’s motion. The fact that a prior arbitration award is inconsistent with a subsequent award is not an enumerated ground in either subdivision (b) or (c) of CPLR 7511 for vacating or modifying the subsequent award (see Matter of City School Dist. of City of Tonawanda v Tonawanda Educ. Assn., 63 NY2d 846, 848). As the court properly recognized, “[i]t was within the [SUM] arbitrator’s authority to determine the preclusive effect of the prior arbitration on the instant arbitration” (Matter of Progressive N. Ins. Co. v Sentry Ins. A Mut. Co., 51 AD3d 800, 801). The court erred in noting, however, that it was unable to determine whether the SUM arbitrator even considered claimant’s contention with respect to collateral estoppel. Arbitrators are not required to provide reasons for their decisions (see Matter of Solow Bldg. Co. v Morgan Guar. Trust Co. of N.Y., 6 AD3d 356, 356-357, lv denied 3 NY3d 605, cert denied 543 US 1148; Matter of Guetta [Raxon Fabrics Corp.], 123 AD2d 40, 41), and thus the SUM arbitrator was not required to state that he had considered that contention. “

Two points need to be considered. First, the Fourth Department cites a 2007 Second Department case entitled Matter of Progressive N. Ins. Co. v Sentry Ins. A Mut. Co. for its rule of law. Yet, the Progressive case actually held that collateral estoppel should be given effect to prior arbitration awards involving the same parties and the same issue. Second, there was a two Justice dissent, which as a matter of right brings this case to the Court of Appeals.

For the sake of commonsense, this case should be reversed. Otherwise, there will be too many instances where inconsistent decisions will arise in post-ime cases, other policy violation cases and coverage cases, among others. It would be a fair assessment to say that no-fault and other first-party practitioners will not benefit from the uncertainty and some could say absurdity that this case could rein upon the arbitral process.

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