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WALKES v. WALKES

February 20, 1979

Alexander S. WALKES, Individually and as Administrator of the Goods, Chattels and Credits which were of Hannah Walkes, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
Milton H. WALKES and Sally Walkes, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL

In this wrongful death action, brought in federal court by virtue of diversity of citizenship, the defendants have moved to dismiss, asserting that the plaintiff cannot, as a matter of law, satisfy the $ 10,000 amount in controversy requirement. The defendants in this action are both domiciliaries of New York, while the plaintiff, as was his decedent, is a domiciliary of Florida. The motion presents the question of which state's law, that of New York or Florida, should be applied in measuring the plaintiff's damages, and whether, under the law deemed applicable, the plaintiff can allege sufficient damages to meet the jurisdictional amount.

The plaintiff, Alexander Walkes, and the decedent, Hannah Walkes, were husband and wife, a retired couple who resided in the state of Florida since 1960. (Prior to retirement they had been New York residents.) In July of 1977, the plaintiff and decedent paid a visit to the defendants, Milton and Sally Walkes, their son and daughter-in-law, at the children's home in Tarrytown, New York. During that visit the decedent, allegedly as a result of negligence on the part of the defendants, *fn1" tripped and fell down a flight of stairs, suffering critical injuries. The decedent was pronounced dead on arrival at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Westchester, New York.

Following the death of the decedent, letters of administration were issued to the plaintiff in Florida. The plaintiff has continued to reside in Florida.

 The choice of law issue presented in the instant motion has arisen due to the differing measures of recoverable damages under the Florida and New York wrongful death statutes. Under the Florida law, Fla.Stat.Ann. § 768.21 (1972), damages may be recovered for grief, mental anguish and loss of companionship, as well as for actual pecuniary loss. New York's wrongful death statute, N.Y.Est., Powers & Trusts Law § 5-4.3 (McKinney's 1967), permits compensation for pecuniary loss only.

 Since federal jurisdiction over this case is based upon diversity of citizenship this Court is compelled to apply the choice of law rules of New York, the forum state, in determining the applicable substantive law. Klaxon v. Stentor Electric Manufacturing Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941).

 Until recently the accepted choice of law rule in the area of torts was that the law of the place of the wrong (the Lex loci delicti ) would govern every issue which arose in connection with that tort. See, e.g., Poplar v. Bourjois Inc., 298 N.Y. 62, 80 N.E.2d 334 (1948). This rule, however, was abandoned in New York in Babcock v. Jackson, 12 N.Y.2d 473, 240 N.Y.S.2d 743, 191 N.E.2d 279 (1963). In that case the New York Court of Appeals, noting that the traditional torts rule could often lead to "unjust and anomalous results," Id. at 479, 240 N.Y.S.2d at 747, 191 N.E.2d at 282, held 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." Id. at 481, 240 N.Y.S.2d at 749, 191 N.E.2d at 283.

 This "governmental interest" standard, focusing on applying the law of the state having the most significant concern with the issues involved, has been developed by the New York courts in a long series of cases, particularly in those involving automobile guest-host statutes, See, e.g., Towley v. King Arthur Rings, 40 N.Y.2d 129, 386 N.Y.S.2d 80, 351 N.E.2d 728 (1976); Neumeier v. Kuehner, 31 N.Y.2d 121, 335 N.Y.S.2d 64, 286 N.E.2d 454 (1972); Tooker v. Lopez, 24 N.Y.2d 569, 301 N.Y.S.2d 519, 249 N.E.2d 394 (1969), and those involving wrongful deaths, (most frequently in situations where the situs of the accident was a state in which a specific maximum recovery was imposed). See, e.g., Thomas v. United Air Lines, Inc., 24 N.Y.2d 714, 301 N.Y.S.2d 973, 249 N.E.2d 755 (1969); Miller v. Miller, 22 N.Y.2d 12, 290 N.Y.S.2d 734, 237 N.E.2d 877 (1968); Tjepkema v. Kenney, 31 A.D.2d 908, 298 N.Y.S.2d 175 (1st Dep't 1969).

 In the guest-host statute area, the New York Court of Appeals has developed a set of rules by which to decide such cases. Neumeier v. Kuehner, supra. Although these rules have not been extended to apply to wrongful death actions, they are useful in providing a general approach for the choice of law decision at hand.

 To determine the applicable law in the instant action, it is necessary for this Court to analyze, as would the state courts, the respective interests of New York and Florida. Both of those states arguably have an interest in the measure of damages which the plaintiff may recover.

 The plaintiff contends that Florida, the state where he is domiciled, as well as where the estate of the decedent is being administered, is the state of greatest concern. The plaintiff bases this contention on a line of cases which have held that, "(t)he predominant interests to be served on the issue of damages are those of the states containing the people or estates which will receive the recoverable damages, if any, for their injuries or their decedent's death." Thomas v. United Air Lines, 24 N.Y.2d at 724, 301 N.Y.S.2d at 979, 249 N.E.2d at 759-760, Quoting Manos v. Trans World Airlines, 295 F. Supp. 1170, 1173 (N.D.Ill.1969). See Long v. Pan American World Airways, 16 N.Y.2d 337, 266 N.Y.S.2d 513, 213 N.E.2d 796 (1965); Juodis v. Schule, 79 Misc.2d 955, 361 N.Y.S.2d 605 (Sup.Ct.1974).

 Despite the concern Florida may have with the instant action, however, the Court believes that New York's interests predominate. New York is both the domicile of the defendants as well as the situs where the wrongful death occurred. Unlike the "in transit" accidents involved in such cases as Kilberg v. Northeast Airlines, 9 N.Y.2d 34, 211 N.Y.S.2d 133, 172 N.E.2d 526 (1961), Thomas, and Long, cited by the plaintiff, the instant action is a "fixed location" case in which there was nothing fortuitous as to where the injury occurred. Belisario v. Manhattan Motor Rental, Inc., 48 A.D.2d 477, 370 N.Y.S.2d 574 (1st Dep't 1975); Franklin v. Nelson Freightways, Inc., 408 F. Supp. 670, 672 (E.D.N.Y.1976). Contrary to the air disaster cases (relied upon heavily by the plaintiff), See e.g., Gore v. Northeast Airlines, 373 F.2d 717 (2d Cir. 1967); Kilberg v. Northeast Airlines, supra, where the defendants had engaged in conduct in the state of the plaintiff's or decedent's domicile (I. e., had solicited business there), here all of the allegedly tortious conduct by the defendants was done within New York State. In a situation such as this the Court believes, as was stated by Professor Willis L. M. Reese, the Reporter for the Conflicts of Laws Restatement, that the factors strongly militate in favor of a principle that, "a person should not be held liable for a greater measure of damages than that provided by the law of the state where he was domiciled, where he acted, and where the injury occurred." Reese, Choice of Law in Torts and Contracts and Directions for the Future, 16 Colum.J.Trans.L. 1, 14 (1977). In the instant action New York clearly has a strong interest in having its law applied to protect the defendant. See Neumeier v. Kuehner, supra.

 Nevertheless, it may be argued that the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Rosenthal v. Warren, 475 F.2d 438 (2d Cir. 1973) (applying New York's choice of law rules) lends support to the position that Florida law should be applied. In Rosenthal the court was presented with a New York decedent who had gone to Massachusetts for medical treatment, was operated on by a Massachusetts doctor, and who died soon thereafter. Unlike the present case, however, the court was also faced with a Massachusetts law under which recovery for wrongful death was limited to $ 50,000. Finding the Massachusetts rule to be archaic, unjust and based upon a past misconception that no common law right of action existed for a wrongful death, the court chose to apply New York law, noting that New York had a strong policy to protect its residents against wrongful death limitations. *fn2" See also Pancotto v. Sociedade de Safaris de Mocambique, S.A.R.L., 422 F. Supp. 405, 411 (N.D.Ill.1976) (Illinois law applied even though Mozambique's interests predominated, the court concluding that "the Illinois courts would refuse to enforce the Portugese (Mozambique's former colonial ruler) limitation as unreasonable and contrary to Illinois public policy.")

 New York's wrongful death statute, unlike the Massachusetts statute in Rosenthal, is not one which can be characterized as "unjust" or "archaic." It is a modern law which places no limitation on the amount which may be recovered. *fn3" Application of New York's statute to the instant action, while potentially affording somewhat less recovery than available under Florida law, will adequately ensure that Florida's interest in compensation for its domiciliary will be satisfied. The Court can find no strong policy consideration, as in Rosenthal or Pancotto, mitigating against application of the law of the state with the greatest concern, and therefore holds New York law applicable for determining damages in the instant action.

 Having determined that New York law applies, the Court must next decide whether the plaintiff can allege sufficient damages under that law so as to ...


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