The law rightly seeks a finality to litigation. To advance that objective,
it requires litigants to put their best foot forward to establish the truth
of their allegations when first called upon to do so. A litigant, to use
the vernacular, is only entitled to one bite at the cherry…. An issue,
once decided, should not generally be re-litigated to the benefit of the
losing party and the harassment of the winner. A person should only
be vexed once in the same cause. Duplicative litigation, potential
inconsistent results, undue costs, and inconclusive proceedings are
to be avoided.
Res judicata has two main branches: cause of action estoppel and
issue estoppel. Cause of action estoppel prohibits a litigant from
bringing an action against another party when that same cause of
action has been determined in earlier proceedings by a court of
competent jurisdiction. Cause of action estoppel also prevents a party
from re-litigating a claim that could have been raised in an earlier
Issue estoppel is narrower. It applies to prohibit the re-litigation of an
issue that has already been decided in an earlier proceeding, even
where the cause of action is different in the two proceedings.
The overall goal of the doctrine of res judicata, and therefore of both
cause of action estoppel and issue estoppel, is judicial finality.
The re-litigation of issues that have been before the courts in a
previous proceeding may create an abuse of process. That is because
re-litigation carries serious detrimental effects and should be avoided
unless the circumstances dictate that re-litigation is in fact necessary
to enhance the credibility and the effectiveness of the adjudicative
process as a whole.
The law seeks to avoid re-litigation primarily for two reasons: first, to
prevent overlap and wasting judicial resources; and second, to avoid
the risk of inconsistent findings.
A court may decline to apply res judicata or abuse of process where
its application would work an injustice. This might occur where the first
proceeding denied a party a full and fair hearing, even though that
party exercised reasonable diligence. Additionally, even if the first
proceeding was conducted with scrupulous fairness, it might still be
unfair to use the results of the first proceeding to preclude re-litigation
of an issue.