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AUDREY MILLER v. ROBERT L. MILLER ET AL. (04/18/68)

COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK 1968.NY.41327 <http://www.versuslaw.com>; 237 N.E.2d 877; 22 N.Y.2d 12 decided: April 18, 1968. AUDREY MILLER, AS EXECUTRIX OF EARL MILLER, DECEASED, RESPONDENT,v.ROBERT L. MILLER ET AL., APPELLANTS Miller v. Miller, 28 A.D.2d 899, affirmed. Counsel Samuel S. Slavitt and Howard H. Schrecke for appellants. Herman Schmertz for respondent. Chief Judge Fuld and Judges Burke and Bergan concur with Judge Keating; Judge Breitel dissents and votes to reverse in an opinion in which Judge Jasen concurs; Judge Scileppi dissents and votes to reverse on the authority of Dym v. Gordon (16 N.Y.2d 120). Author: Keating


Miller v. Miller, 28 A.D.2d 899, affirmed.

Chief Judge Fuld and Judges Burke and Bergan concur with Judge Keating; Judge Breitel dissents and votes to reverse in an opinion in which Judge Jasen concurs; Judge Scileppi dissents and votes to reverse on the authority of Dym v. Gordon ( Author: Keating

 On August 10, 1961 the late Earl Miller, a resident of Harrison, New York, embarked on a short business trip to Brunswick, Maine, where his brother resided and where they had mutual business interests. On August 12, 1961, while a passenger in a car driven by his brother and owned by his sister-in-law, Mr. Miller was killed when the vehicle suddenly swerved off the road and crashed into a bridge railing.

Some three months after the accident, the decedent's brother and sister-in-law, who had been Maine residents, returned to this State where they presently reside. Shortly thereafter, the decedent's wife, as executrix of his estate, commenced this action for wrongful death against the defendants Robert and Barbara Miller, alleging that the accident occurred as a result of the negligent operation of the vehicle owned by Mrs. Miller.

As a partial defense to the wrongful death action, the defendants asserted the $20,000 limitation on recoveries in wrongful death actions in effect in Maine at the time of the decedent's death but since repealed (Maine Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 18, ยง 2552, as amd. by L. 1965, ch. 255).*fn1 The Supreme Court (Special Term) granted a motion by the plaintiff to dismiss the partial defense. The Appellate Division (2d Dept.) unanimously affirmed and granted leave to appeal to this court.

The question presented by this appeal is whether the $20,000 limitation on recovery in wrongful death actions under Maine law should be applied in this action for the benefit of the resident wife and children of a New York decedent against New York resident defendants where the accident took place in Maine and the defendants resided there at the time of the accident.

In Babcock v. Jackson (12 N.Y.2d 473 [1963]) this court rejected squarely and unequivocally the traditional choice-of-law rule which looked invariably to the law of the place of the tort. The difficulty which we found with this rule was that in giving controlling significance to the law of that jurisdiction in which the accident took place, without considering the purpose of the laws in conflict, the rule "[ignored] the interest which jurisdictions other than that where the tort occurred may have in the resolution of particular issues" (supra, p. 478). We concluded that "Justice, fairness and 'the best practical result' * * * may best be achieved by giving controlling effect to the law of the jurisdiction which, because of its relationship or contact with the occurrence or the parties, has the greatest concern with the specific issue raised in the litigation" (supra, p. 481).

While this approach has been denominated under such various headings as "grouping of contacts" and "center of gravity", and while candor requires the admission that our past decisions have lacked a precise consistency, the rule which has evolved clearly in our most recent decisions is that the law of the jurisdiction having the greatest interest in the litigation will be applied and that the facts or contacts which obtain significance in defining State interests are those which relate to the purpose of the particular law in conflict.

Thus in Matter of Crichton (20 N.Y.2d 124) a New York domiciliary died leaving a considerable fortune in stocks, bonds and savings accounts in Louisiana. The will of the decedent bequeathed all his property to his children and made no provision for his wife. Under Louisiana law the wife was entitled to one half the estate while under New York law she would be entitled to a third. In arguing the applicability of Louisiana law -- which by its express terms applied to the property in question -- it was argued, on behalf of the wife, that Louisiana had the more numerous contacts and the most significant relationship with the issue. Among the Louisiana contacts was the presence of the property in that jurisdiction, the fact that the property was purchased with proceeds from oil and mineral investments in Louisiana, and the fact that the great bulk of the decedent's wealth was located in Louisiana. Against these numerous contacts with Louisiana the sole New York contact was the residence of the decedent and his spouse in New York.

In deciding to apply New York law rather than the law of Louisiana we wrote (pp. 133-134):

"The choice of law problem here should be resolved by an examination of the contacts which Louisiana and New York have with this controversy for the purpose of determining which of those jurisdictions has the paramount interest in the application of its law. * * * [This] process requires us 'first to isolate the issue, next to identify the policies embraced in the laws in conflict, and finally to examine the contacts of the respective jurisdictions to ascertain which has a superior connection with the occurrence and thus would have a superior interest in having its policy or law applied.' * * *

"The issue in this case is whether the community property laws of Louisiana should be applied to govern the property rights of New York domiciliaries in intangible personal property acquired during coverture. From the previous discussion, it is clear that the community property system is designed to regulate the property rights of married persons and, in particular, to protect the interest of each spouse in the property accumulated during marriage. * * * For reasons which become obvious merely in stating the purpose of the rule, Louisiana has no such interest in protecting and regulating the rights of married persons residing and domiciled in New York.

"The State of New York which has such an interest has not adopted a community property system. Instead it has sought to protect a surviving spouse by giving her a right to take one third of the entire estate of the deceased as against a testamentary disposition by which the deceased has attempted to exclude her from a share of the estate. * * * And, depending upon the nature of the property in the estate, a surviving spouse under New York law might well be entitled to receive a greater portion of the over-all estate than under the community property system.

"By affording the surviving spouse such a right in the estate of the deceased spouse, the Legislature has sought to preserve the right of the testator to distribute his property as he desires, while at the same time to provide protection for the surviving spouse. New York, as the domicile of Martha and Powell Crichton, has not only the dominant interest in the application of its law and policy but the only interest."

In rejecting a quantitative grouping of contacts, we noted (p. 135, n. 8) that "Contacts obtain significance only to the extent that they relate to the policies and purposes sought to be vindicated by the conflicting laws" and that in the case before us the contacts urged as significant had "no relation whatever" to the purpose sought to be vindicated by Louisiana's community property laws.

The reasoning of Crichton was followed recently in Matter of Clark (21 N.Y.2d 478, 485-486 [1968]) where we held that "As between two states, the law of that one which has the predominant, if not the sole, interest in the protection and regulation of the rights of the person or persons involved should, of course, be invoked." (See, also, Reich v. Purcell, 63 Cal. Rptr. 31 [1967]; Griffith v. United Air Lines, 416 Pa. 1 [1964]; Wilcox v. Wilcox, 26 Wis. 2d 617 [1965]; Currie, Comments on Babcock v. Jackson, 63 Col. L. Rev. 1212, 1235 [1963]; Traynor, Is This Conflict Really Necessary?, 37 Texas L. Rev. 657 [1959].)

Applying then the choice-of-law rule which has evolved from Babcock v. Jackson (supra) through Matter of Clark (supra), we conclude that in the instant case, as the facts are presented to us, it is New York which has "the predominant * * * interest in the protection and ...


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