Appeals Court Decides Not to Revisit Concussion Case, Citing Res Judicata

Jun 18, 2021 | Negligence

A Connecticut appeals court has affirmed the dismissal of a claim of negligence raised in a concussion case, finding that the lower court acted appropriately when it granted summary judgment because the case had already been decided on its merits and could not be relitigated again (doctrine of res judicata).

The claim was brought by Gabriel Couloute and his mother, April Couloute. Gabriel alleged that he suffered a concussion during a football practice in an October 20, 2016, at Glastonbury High School. At the time, he was a minor. His mother alleged that she incurred damages and losses as a result of her son’s medical care.

In the plaintiffs’ complaint, they alleged 20 counts against the defendants, the Board of Education of the Town of Glastonbury; Alan Bookman, Superintendent of Schools for the Glastonbury School District; Nancy E. Bean, Principal of Glastonbury High School; Trish Witkin, athletic director; and Mark Alexander, junior varsity football coach.

They alleged claims of negligence and recklessness against each of the defendants.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the doctrine of res judicata bars the action. The defendants claim that the plaintiffs already brought these claims and/or had the opportunity to bring these claims against each of the defendants. The defendants further provide that all the defendants in the first action are the same in the second action with the exception of Mark Alexander, who has been substituted for Scott Daniels in the prior action.

“The prior action was disposed of by a motion to strike in Couloute v. Board of Education, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CV-17-6074140-S (January 5, 2018) (Shapiro, J.),” according to the appeals court. “The plaintiffs took no further action to replead the complaint.”

In response to the motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs “countered that summary judgment is inappropriate because, when the first action and the motion to strike were filed, the information they now have was not available to them. The plaintiffs claimed that this lack of information hindered their ability to fairly litigate the matter. Further, the plaintiffs argued that, pursuant to public policy, the court should not apply res judicata to this case.

The appeals court noted that “in order for res judicata to apply, four elements must be met: (1) the judgment must have been rendered on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) the parties to the prior and subsequent actions must be the same or in privity; (3) there must have been an adequate opportunity to litigate the matter fully; and (4) the same underlying claim must be at issue.”  Girolametti v. Michael Horton Associates, Inc., 332 Conn. 67, 75, 208 A.3d 1223 (2019).

The first element is satisfied because the ruling on the motion to strike was a judgment on the merits, according to the appeals court.

As for the second element, the appeals court wrote that “it is clear that all the defendants in the current case were all of the defendants in the first action with the exception of the aforementioned substitution of coaches. The second element of privity is satisfied.”

Turning to the third element, the appeals court noted that “the plaintiffs had an adequate opportunity to fully litigate the claims in the first action and to seek appellate review. The recklessness claims are identical to the negligence claims, except for the language providing that the actions were done ‘consciously’ or ‘knowingly.’ Although the plaintiffs did not make a claim for recklessness in the first action, it could have been asserted in the first action; thus, it is also extinguished under the doctrine of res judicata. As such, the third element is satisfied.”

Lastly, regarding the fourth element, the appeals court wrote that “viewing the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs and assuming that the plaintiffs truthfully did not have certain factual information surrounding a specific incident within that 2016-2017 football year time frame available to them, Connecticut law does not allow for the plaintiffs to circumvent the doctrine of res judicata by the reassertion of the same claims even after new information or evidence has been discovered.”

Finally, it explored the recognized exceptions to res judicata, notably “whether another public policy interest outweighs the interest of finality served by the preclusion doctrines.

“… Balancing the public policy considerations of the interests of the defendants and the judicial system in bringing litigation to a close, and the plaintiffs in vindication of a just claim, the evidence of these repetitive claims provides support for bringing litigation to an end. Granting the motion for summary judgment in this case is in conformity with the exact purpose for which the doctrine of res judicata exists. This case does not present itself as one that would frustrate social policies that are based on values equally or more important than that which is afforded by finality in legal controversies.”

Gabriel Couloute et al. v. Board of Education of the Town of Glastonbury et al.; Appellate Court of Connecticut; AC 43375; 4/20/21

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