Yesterday the New York Court of Appeals considered an interesting legal issue in the civil matter stemming from the same acts that resulted in former criminal defense attorney Joel Steinberg's conviction for manslaughter. This was an infamous case that resulted in the horrible death of his 6-year-old adopted daughter, Lisa.
In Launders v Steinberg 2007 NY Slip Op 07499, the birth mother and administratix of Lisa's estate commenced an action against Steinberg alleging, in part, two claims for prior acts of abuse (fifth and sixth causes of action) and one claim that Steinberg, despite having actual notice that Lisa sustained a life-threatening injury, recklessly and dangerously failed to take reasonably prudent action to secure medical treatment for her (seventh cause of action).
At issue was whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiff as to the three causes of action described above by invoking the doctrine of collateral estoppel based upon his prior manslaughter conviction.
The Court first set forth the applicable law relating to collateral estoppel:
In order to invoke the doctrine of collateral estoppel, "[t]here must be an identity of issue which has necessarily been decided in the prior action and is decisive of the present action, and there must have been a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision now said to be controlling" (Buechel v Bain, 97 NY2d 295, 303-304 , cert denied 535 US 1096 ).
The Court then held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel was inapplicable to the fifth and sixth causes of action in this case:
Here, the jury in defendant's criminal trial was not required to determine whether Lisa was subjected to repeated physical abuse by defendant during the months prior to the acts resulting in her death. Although evidence of prior acts of abuse was presented at defendant's criminal trial, the issue was not "necessarily decided" therein. Thus, Supreme Court's award of summary judgment on plaintiff's fifth and sixth causes of action must be vacated and a new trial held on liability on these causes of action.