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Sheila Elizabeth Edwards, &C., et al v. Erie Coach Lines Company

June 30, 2011

SHEILA ELIZABETH EDWARDS, &C., ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
ERIE COACH LINES COMPANY, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. MEGAN GODWIN, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
TRENTWAY-WAGAR, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS. TRACI BUTLER, APPELLANT,
v.
STAGECOACH GROUP, PLC, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, TRENTWAY-WAGAR, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS. COURTNEY COWAN, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
STAGECOACH GROUP, PLC, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, XTRA LEASE, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS. LAURALEE DAVIDSON, APPELLANT,
v.
COACH USA, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS. MICHAEL ROACH, &C., ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
COACH USA, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Read, J.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

Near Geneseo, New York on January 19, 2005 a charter bus carrying members of an Ontario women's hockey team plowed into the rear-end of a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of the highway. Four bus passengers and the trailer's driver died; several bus passengers were seriously hurt. We are called upon to decide the choice-of-law issue presented by these six lawsuits, which were brought to recover damages for wrongful death and/or personal injuries.

I. Nearly a half-century ago, in Babcock v Jackson (12 NY2d 473 [1963]), we abandoned what had long been our choice-oflaw rule whereby the law of the place of the tort invariably governed. Because "in nearly all such cases, the conduct causing injury and the injury itself occurred in the same jurisdiction" (id. at 477, n 2), this rule offered "the advantages of certainty, ease of application and predictability," but at the expense of "the interest which [other] jurisdictions . . . [might] have in the resolution of particular issues" (id. at 478; see also Cooney v Osgood Mach., Inc., 81 NY2d 66, 72 [1993] [place-of-the-tort theory "failed to accord any significance to the policies underlying the conflicting laws of other jurisdictions"]).

To "accomodat[e] the competing interests in tort cases with multi-State contacts," we adopted the "center of gravity" or "grouping of contacts" approach, which gave the "controlling effect to the law of the jurisdiction which, because of its relationship or contact with the occurrence or the parties, ha[d] the greatest concern with the specific issue raised in the litigation" (12 NY2d at 481). This new method of analysis, however, was limited to competing loss-allocation -- not conduct-regulating -- rules.*fn1 As we explained in Babcock, "[w]here the defendant's exercise of due care in the operation of his automobile is in issue, the jurisdiction in which the allegedly wrongful conduct occurred will usually have a predominant, if not exclusive, concern. In such a case, it is appropriate to look to the law of the place of the tort so as to give effect to that jurisdiction's interest in regulating conduct within its borders, and it would be almost unthinkable to seek the applicable rule in the law of some other place" (id. at 483).

The facts of Babcock illustrate how "grouping of contacts" worked. In that case, a New York passenger in a car operated by a New York driver was injured in an automobile accident that occurred in Ontario during a weekend trip to Canada. We noted that the trip began and was to end in New York, where the car was garaged, licensed and insured, and where the driver-passenger relationship arose (id. at 482-483). The "guest" passenger sued the "host" driver in New York for negligence. At the time, the Ontario guest statute barred the passenger from recovering damages from the driver,*fn2 while New York law did not.

Looking to the "grouping of contacts," we decided that New York -- not Ontario, the place of the tort -- possessed "the dominant contacts and the superior claim for application of its law" as to whether the passenger should "recover[] for damages for a wrong concededly committed" (id. at 483). We commented that, in this context, "[a]lthough the rightness or wrongness of [the driver's] conduct may depend upon the law of the particular jurisdiction through which the automobile passes, the rights and liabilities of the parties which stem from their guest-host relationship should remain constant and not vary and shift as the automobile proceeds from place to place. Indeed, such a result .

. . accords with the interests of the host in procuring liability insurance adequate under the applicable law, and the interest of his insurer in reasonable calculability of the premium" (id. at 483-484 [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Over time, the "grouping of contacts" approach put into place by Babcock evolved into a more explicit "interest analysis." This method of deciding choice-of-law issues "reject[ed] a quantitative grouping of contacts" because "[c]ontacts obtain significance only to the extent that they relate to the policies and purposes sought to be vindicated by the conflicting laws" (Miller v Miller, 22 NY2d 12, 17 [1968]; see also Cooney, 81 NY2d at 72 ["Of the various, sometimes competing, schools of thought on choice of law, the one that emerged as most satisfactory was 'interest analysis,' which sought to effect the law of the jurisdiction having the greatest interest in resolving the particular issue"]).

We refined our "interest analysis" so as "to assure a greater degree of predictability and uniformity" in Neumeier v Kuehner (31 NY2d 121, 127 [1972]), a case where a domiciliary of Ontario was killed when the automobile in which he was a passenger collided with a train in Ontario. The vehicle was owned and driven by a resident of New York, who was also killed in the accident. The passenger's wife and administratix, a citizen of Canada and a domiciliary of Ontario, brought an action for wrongful death in New York against the driver's estate and the railway company, both of which interposed affirmative defenses involving the Ontario guest statute.*fn3 The wife, asserting that the Ontario statute was unavailable, moved to dismiss the affirmative defenses, and Supreme Court granted the motion. The Appellate Division reversed, and asked us if its order was properly made. We answered, "No."

Neumeier set up a three-rule framework for resolving choice of law in conflicts settings involving guest statutes, which by definition allocate losses after the tort occurs rather than regulate primary conduct. Under the first Neumeier rule, when the driver and passenger are domiciled in the same state, and the vehicle is registered there, the law of their shared jurisdiction controls (id. at 128). The second rule addresses the situation where the driver and the passenger are domiciled in different states, and the law of the place where the accident occurred favors its domiciliary. When the driver's conduct occurs in the state where he is domiciled, which would not impose liability, that state's law applies. Conversely, if the law of the place where the accident occurred permits the injured passenger to recover, then the driver, "in the absence of special circumstances," may not interpose a conflicting law of his state as a defense (id.; see also Cooney, 81 NY2d at 73 ["In essence, . . . the second Neumeier rule adopts a 'place of injury' test for true conflict guest statute cases"]).

"In other situations, when the passenger and the driver are domiciled in different states, the rule is necessarily less categorical" (31 NY2d at 128). Thus, under the third Neumeier rule, the law of the state where the accident occurred governs unless "it can be shown that displacing that normally applicable rule will advance the relevant substantive law purposes without impairing the smooth working of the multistate system or producing great uncertainty for litigants" (id.).

Since the passenger in Neumeier was domiciled in Ontario, where the guest statute did not allow recovery, and the driver in New York, the third rule -- the law of the place of the tort (i.e., Ontario) -- would normally control. We saw no reason to apply the third rule's proviso since the wife "failed to show that [New York's] connection with the controversy was sufficient to justify displacing" lex loci delicti, the law of the place of the wrong (id. at 129). The wife did not show that ignoring Ontario's guest statute in a case "involv[ing] an Ontario-domiciled guest at the expense of a New Yorker . . . further[ed] the substantive law purposes of New York"; and "failure to apply Ontario's law would impair . . . the smooth working of the multi-state system [and] produce great uncertainty to litigants by sanctioning forum shopping and thereby allowing a party to select a forum [countenancing] a larger recovery than [that party's] own domicile" (id. [internal quotation marks omitted]).

We have routinely applied the Neumeier framework to conflicts in loss-allocation situations not involving guest statutes. For example, the issue in Schultz v Boy Scouts of Am (65 NY2d 189 [1985]) was whether the doctrine of charitable immunity would apply in a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs domiciled in New Jersey. The plaintiffs were the parents of two boys, one of whom committed suicide. They sued the Boy Scouts of America and the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis, Inc. for negligent hiring and supervision of a sexually abusive brother (also a defendant), who was supplied by the Franciscan Brothers, pursuant to an agreement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, as a teacher at a school owned and operated by the Archdiocese, and who was a scoutmaster of a boy scout troop sponsored by the school and chartered by the Boy Scouts. The plaintiffs' sons attended the class taught by the brother at the school, and were members of his scout troop.

Acts of sexual abuse were alleged to have taken place mostly during boy scout camping outings in New York, but also at the school in New Jersey.*fn4 The Boy Scouts were domiciled in New Jersey; the Franciscan Brothers, in Ohio. At the time the plaintiffs' causes of action arose, New Jersey and Ohio both recognized charitable immunity while New York did not. The Ohio rule, however, denied immunity in actions based on negligent hiring and supervision.*fn5 And the plaintiffs' claims had already been determined to have been barred by the New Jersey doctrine of charitable immunity in an earlier action brought by the plaintiffs in New Jersey against the Archdiocese. We held that New Jersey law governed, and that the plaintiffs were precluded from relitigating its effect in light of the final determination in their action against the Archdiocese.

Under the first Neumeier rule, New Jersey law clearly controlled the plaintiffs' claim against the Boy Scouts because the plaintiffs and this defendant had "chosen to identify themselves in the most concrete form possible, domicile, with a jurisdiction that [had] weighed the interests of charitable tortfeasors and their victims and decided to retain the defense of charitable immunity" (id. at 199-200). But because this was "the first case for our review [where] New York [was] the forum-locus rather than the parties' common domicile," we examined "the reasons most often advanced for applying the law of the forum-locus and those supporting application of the law of the common domicile" (id. at 200).

We identified those reasons "most often urged" to favor the forum-locus as "(1) to protect medical creditors who provided services to injured parties in the locus State, (2) to prevent injured tort victims from becoming public wards in the locus State and (3) the deterrent effect application of locus law [would have] on future tort-feasors in the locus State" (id. at 200). We opined that the first two reasons shared "common weaknesses," since neither "necessarily require[d] application of the locus jurisdiction's law, but rather invariably mandate[d] application of the law of the jurisdiction that would either allow recovery or allow greater recovery" (id.). As a result, they were "subject to criticism . . . as being biased in favor of recovery" (id.). Further, we observed, neither consideration was relevant in Schultz since there was no evidence of unpaid medical creditors or that the plaintiffs were about to become wards of the State. As for the third reason, we acknowledged that although it was "conceivable that application of New York's law in this case would have some deterrent effect on future tortious conduct" in New York, our "deterrent interest [was] considerably less because none of the parties [was] a resident and the rule in conflict [was] loss-allocating rather than conduct-regulating" (id.).

On the other side of the ledger, we toted up "persuasive reasons for consistently applying the law of the parties' common domicile." These included (1) reduced opportunities for forum-shopping; (2) rebuttal of "charges that the forum-locus is biased in favor of its own laws and in favor of rules permitting recovery"; (3) "the concepts of mutuality and reciprocity support consistent application of the common-domicile rule" since "[i]n any given case, one person could be either plaintiff or defendant and one State could be either the parties' common domicile or the locus, and yet the applicable law would not change depending on ...


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