Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Appeals Court holds that judicial estoppel doctrine bars assignment of some claims to prevailing plaintiff

Stephen Hanlon sued Becky Sandman for injuring him when she was driving while intoxicated.

At trial Hanlon received a judgment of approximately $17 million.

Hanlon, as the assignee of Sandman's rights, then sued Sandman's insurer, Homeland, for breach of its duty to defend and breach of Mass. Gen. Laws chs. 93A and 176D. He alleged that the insurer and the insurance defense attorney failed to adequately prepare for and defend at trial, exposing Sandman to an excess judgment; and that they failed to explore settlement opportunities and convey them to Sandman.

Hanlon later substituted Sandman as the plaintiff. Homeland moved to dismiss on the basis of judicial estoppel. That motion was allowed, on the ground that Hanlon was the real party in interest regardless of the substitution of Sandman as the named plaintiff.

In Sandman v. McGrath, 78 Mass. App. Ct. 800 (2011), the Massachusetts Appeals Court noted that judicial estoppel "is an equitable doctrine that precludes a party from asserting a position in one legal proceeding that is contary to a position it had previously asserted in another proceeding." The court held that the doctrine must be applied to the real party in interest.

The court held that the doctrine of judicial estoppel bars Hanlon from bringing claims reqardng the adequacy of preparation for and actions at trial, because in the underlying action he had successfully argued that the damages award was not exessive.

The court held that the doctrine does not apply to claims regarding failure to pursue settlement opportunities. Hanlon's claim that he would have settled the underlying lawsuit is not inconsistent with the argument that Sandman was negligent and liable to him for damages.

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