This appeal arises in a divorce action brought by the plaintiff wife upon the ground of wilful desertion.
The Trial Court had before it substantially the same evidence that was before a different Judge of the Superior Court in an earlier action for divorce brought by the husband against the wife on the ground of constructive desertion. In the earlier action, upon the same facts, the husband's petition was dismissed on the ground that he was not justified in leaving; and in so holding, the Court stated:
There was no appeal from that decision.
In the instant case, after recognizing that the testimony in the earlier case was substantially the same, the Trial Court stated:
Thus, we see the Superior Court reaching opposite conclusions upon the same facts, in two cases between the same parties, upon the issue of justification.
The first question presented for our decision is whether the issue of justification tried and decided in the husband's constructive desertion case, was the same as the issue of justification tried and decided in the wife's wilful desertion case.
In the husband's constructive desertion case, the Trial Court correctly considered Anton v. Anton, 10 Terry 431, 118 A.2d 605 (1955) to be governing. Approving the doctrine of constructive desertion, as adopted in Harrington v. Harrington, 8 W.W. Harr. 333, 192 A. 555 (1937), this Court stated in Anton that one spouse may leave the other and sue for divorce after two years if the latter's conduct has been such as to be absolutely inconsistent with the marriage relation, and such as to make it "impossible to continue cohabitation with safety, health or self-respect," even though such misconduct may not in itself amount to a specified ground for divorce. These are the tests of justification in a constructive desertion case; and it was these tests that the Trial Judge found to be unmet when he dismissed the husband's petition for divorce on the ground of constructive desertion. Otherwise stated, the Court in the earlier case manifestly found that the husband was not justified in leaving his wife because he had not satisfactorily proved that the wife's conduct was such as to be absolutely inconsistent with the marriage relation, nor such as to make it impossible to continue cohabitation with safety, health, and self-respect.
Comparing the issue of justification thus tried and decided in the earlier constructive desertion case: In the instant case, the Trial Court found, as a successful defense to the wife's wilful desertion action, that the husband was justified in leaving the wife because "the marital relationship existing between petitioner and defendant at the time of separation had deteriorated to a point that made it impossible to continue cohabitation with safety or health." We see no substantial difference between the issue of justification thus decided and the issue of justification decided in the earlier case. We think the issue was the same in each case. Under the liberal doctrine of constructive desertion prevailing in this State, the requisite misconduct constituting justification for leaving need not rise to the proportion of a ground for divorce. Harrington v. Harrington, supra; compare 1
Since the issue of justification was the same, and since it had been tried and determined in the earlier case between the same parties, the refinement of the doctrine of res judicata known as collateral estoppel applies. Under that doctrine, where a question of fact essential to the judgment is litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, the determination is conclusive between the same parties in a subsequent case on a different cause of action. In such situation, a party is estopped from relitigating the issue again in the subsequent case. Petrucci v. Landon, 9 Terry 491, 107 A.2d 236 (1954); Lewis v. Hanson, 36 Del. Ch. 235, 128 A.2d 819, 833 (1957); Auerbach v. Cities Service Company, 36 Del.Ch. 554, 134 A.2d 846, 851 (1957).
The rule of collateral estoppel is a rule of repose designed to end litigation. Bata v. Bata, 39 Del.Ch. 258, 163 A.2d 493, 507 (1960). Among its worthy purposes is the avoidance of conflicting judicial determinations upon the same facts in different cases between the same parties.
Applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel, we conclude that the husband was estopped to plead justification as a defense in the instant case because that issue was tried and determined against him in the earlier case. The earlier determination upon that issue is conclusive between the parties in this action, and the husband is barred from interposing the issue as a defense herein and relitigating it. Accordingly, we hold that the defense of justification is not available to the husband in the instant case.
For the reasons stated, the judgment below must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent herewith.