Estoppel is a mouthful to say, but it refers to some simple ideas that help keep the legal system fair. Estoppel is the principle that you have to be consistent in all your claims or court cases related to a single matter. For example, you cannot claim you own a piece of land in one legal case (perhaps to prevent a fence being built there) and then claim you don’t in another case (to avoid liability for an injury that happened there).
Similarly, estoppel will not allow you to re-argue the same facts in case after case.
There are other ways that “estoppel” is used, but in the context of a personal injury case these are the most important.
What is an example of estoppel in a personal injury case?
Let’s say a drunk driver causes an accident. The accident hurt two people: a passenger in the drunk driver’s car, and a person in the other car that was hit. Both people bring a drunk driving accident claim against the driver.
If these claims go to court, the drunk driver could try to use two different arguments to get out of paying:
- Against the person in the other car, the drunk driver may claim he hadn’t been drinking at all. He says he was sober and that it was the other driver, not him, who caused the accident.
- Against his own passenger, the drunk driver admits he was drinking. He says the passenger had been at the bar with him and knew he was drunk when they got in the car with him. He says it was reckless of them to ride with a drunk driver, and they are at least partially responsible for their own injuries.
These two defenses are clearly inconsistent. The truth is that the driver had either been drinking or not—he can’t have it both ways. The doctrine of estoppel will prevent him from making one of these two claims, and he will have to choose one version of the story to follow (or accept the one the court decides on).
How is estoppel enforced?
The courts will enforce it. Typically, one party in the lawsuit points out the inconsistency and asks the court to find it “estopped.” If the court finds it estopped, that particular line of reasoning is no longer allowed in the courtroom for that case. For example, in the drunk driving case above, the injured person from the other vehicle could simply point out that the driver already admitted he was drunk in the other court case. The court could then reject his claim that he was sober and force him to defend himself on other grounds.
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