The rule against splitting causes of action requires litigants to bring all their claims arising out of the same transactional nucleus of facts in the same civil action. It is an equitable rule and a subsidiary of the doctrine of res judicata. Like res judicata, the rule against splitting causes of action rests upon the principles that cases should not be tried piecemeal and that litigation should end once the rights of the parties have been determined.
In essence, the rule bars repetitious suits involving the same cause of action. Plaintiffs must therefore bring all such related claims that have already accrued in the same pleading or lose them. For example, in a personal injury action arising from a motor vehicle collision, litigants must bring their claims for both bodily injury and property damage in the same action.
An instructive case on the rule against splitting causes of action is Coomer v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 319 S.W.3d 366, 371 (Ky. 2010). The plaintiff filed suit in Jefferson Circuit Court to recover for chronic wrist injuries that he claimed arose from his twenty-year employment in labor positions at CSX. Nearly two years later he brought a subsequent suit in Perry Circuit Court against CSX for additional injuries, which he also claimed arose from his years as a laborer for the company.
The Supreme Court in Coomer stated that the rule against splitting causes of action “applies not only to the points upon which the court was required by the parties to form an opinion and pronounce judgment, but to every point which properly belonged to the subject of litigation, and which the parties, exercising reasonable diligence, might have brought forward at the time.” In this sense, the rule has broader application than res judicata.
On the other hand, the equitable nature of the rule subjects its general application to several exceptions. For example: (1) the rule does not necessarily bar a later suit on matters that were not relevant, or at least implicitly connected, to the issues of the original action; and (2) the rule does not apply to a cause of action before it accrues.
The Coomer Court ultimately addressed the novel issue of how the rule operates when a new claim, arising out of the same nucleus of facts, accrues during the pendency of the original civil action. In so doing the Court applied the principles of equity and extended the exception to the rule for causes of actions not yet accrued to include causes of action that accrue during the litigation. Thus, where a cause of action arising out of the same nucleus of facts as a cause of action in an existing suit accrues during the pendency of that litigation, the claimant has a procedural choice. The claimant may either bring a separate civil action or amend the complaint in the existing action (or supplement the complaint, if the facts giving rise to the newly accrued cause of action occurred after the time the original complaint was filed).
For the careful practitioner, however, seeking to rely on exceptions to the rule against splitting causes of action can be a risky and costly endeavor. The preferable course of action is to investigate fully one’s case before filing suit and plead related claims in the same cause of action, where possible. If circumstances give rise to a new cause of action of the same or similar type arising out of the same basic set of operative facts against the same defendant during the pendency of the original litigation, the plaintiff, for reasons of judicial economy and to avoid the risk of splitting causes of action, should strongly consider amending or supplementing the complaint to add the new claim.
Note: The foregoing post includes commentary reprinted from the forthcoming 2013 supplement to Rules of Civil Procedure Annotated, 6th ed. (Vols. 6 & 7, Kentucky Practice Series), by David V. Kramer, with permission of the author and publisher. Copyright (c) 2013 Thomson Reuters. For more information about this publication please visit http://store.westlaw.com/rules-of-civil-litigation-annotated-6th-vols-6-7-kentucky/130503/11774808/productdetail.
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