Choices of law cases are one of the most confusing scenarios that in turn are capable of creating legal imperfections that even courts at times, find hard to fix. Our source claims that sometimes, the very law that was created to protect the innocent is also the same one that produces unlikely results to injured persons who otherwise should have been protected if not for the confusing nature of these kinds of laws. Although the country is divided into several states that have different policies on choices of law cases, they must deliver the fairest results in cases to protect all those who the most need coverage and defense. This next case is about conflicting laws of different states and how an innocent victim can get sidestepped because of confusion from conflicting laws.
In October 1964, three Michigan State University students decided to go on a trip in a Japanese sports car owned by Marcia Lopez. The sports car was a gift from his father and was registered and insured under her name in New York City. Susan Silk invited Marcia Lopez to visit her home in Michigan for the break when another passenger, Catharina Tooker, asked to hitch a ride with her classmates to visit some of her friends near the area where they were going. The three were taking academic courses in the university where they also stayed and lived in one dormitory. While driving in Michigan, Ms. Lopez lost control of the vehicle which caused it to overturn and killed her and Ms. Tooker. Ms. Silk sustained serious injuries from the car accident. Ms. Lopez and Ms. Tooker were both from New York. According to our sources, when an accident that involves persons of different domiciles, usually, the choice of law is determined by "lex loci delicti" or to apply the laws of the place wherever the tort happened.
The father of one of the injured passengers, Oliver Tooker, Plaintiff, moved for an action of wrongful death against the father of the driver, Myer Lopez, the Defendant in a New York City Court. The Defendant then insisted that he had no liability over the death of the other's daughter by issuing the Michigan guest statute as an affirmative defense, or plainly, to prevent the Plaintiff from being entitled to claims. To be able to determine which law must be upheld, several cases were cited and used as reference to establish the choice-of-law, and whether it is fair to use the doctrine of "lex loci delicti". Under these governing rules, it was clear that although the accident happened in Michigan, since the driver of the car and one of the passengers lived in New York, the laws of the State should be implemented. Under New York laws, the injured person, in this case the deceased, is entitled to claim damages from the deceased driver defendant, in this case as represented by her father from accidents arising from guest-host relationship, whereas the Michigan guest statute does not permit an injured guest for recovering damages from a host driver under normal circumstances. The driver will only be liable if he or she committed gross negligence and willful misconduct.
Since the sports car was registered and insured in New York, and that the Plaintiff and the Defendant are domiciled in the same state, then if follows that they must be governed by the laws of New York. However, the problem herein lies in whether Ms. Silk is also entitled to damages or not, since she was also injured from the car accident and whether the laws of New York for this case may be applied to her case. Ms. Silk was a domiciliary of Michigan, which does not entitle her to claims against the deceased driver. She will be entitled, however, if she proves that the driver was truly negligent which allowed for the car accident to happen. According to our source, the Michigan guest statute does not only prevent "ungrateful guests" from being able to claim but it is also a kind of protection from claims against Michigan insurers. This is also explained in another cited case, "Dym v. Gordon", where both the plaintiff and defendant were domiciled in New York, their guest-host relationship arose in the University of Colorado and the plaintiff in this particular case was injured when the vehicle crashed with another car and injured her. Upon returning to New York, she filed a complaint to recover for personal injuries against the defendant. The defendant this time, similar to what Mr. Lopez did, filed a Colorado guest statute defense.
Under the "Dym v. Gordon" case if the negligent host is somewhat protected by the strict proof of burden imposed on the injured and protects insurance providers more than recover by guests, then the statute fails its purpose to protect the rights of the injured. This is much like the Michigan guest statute. It means that although Ms. Silk was personally injured in the accident, because of the Michigan guest statute, she will not be able to recover from the driver's negligence. So when the Court chose that the laws of New York must be applied, Ms. Silk's case remained outstanding, unless a decision will be made to allow her to benefit from a New York law even though she was a domiciliary of Michigan. A forum selection is necessary to permit Ms. Silk to also be able to claim against the Defendant. In New York and Long Island, the insurance law states that the negligent party will be financially able to pay for damages, while innocent victims of injuries will be compensated from these injuries and other losses.
There is no problem with the Plaintiff, Ms. Tooker's father's case. As a New York domiciliary, he may be compensated for the loss suffered by the family on his daughter's death. On the other hand, Michigan doesn't allow the same benefit to plaintiffs who are claiming against a New York defendant with a car that was also insured in New York. It means that although the deceased driver and guest lived for a time in Michigan is immaterial. In another case cited, it was clearly shown that it s not reasonable to choose a place of law for the sole reason of recovering from an insurance. However, it is also fair to think that when a car owner pays for an insurance policy, then the owner intends to protect guests from negligent injuries that may arise if accidents happen.
The Defendant naturally disagreed by claiming that it was only accidental that the car was registered and insured in New York and that it was only accidental that the parties chose to ride in the same car instead of a car insured and registered in Michigan. Moreover, Ms. Tooker's choice of school may have even been accidental. However, the "lex loci delicti" was still rejected because applying it will not protect the rights of more parties. However, this must not mean that Ms. Silk's case will also be already out of the question. Since it has been decided that the laws of New York will apply, it means that the deceased passenger will be able to recover but Ms. Silk will not because she was a Michigan resident. She can neither recover from Michigan or New York, which should not be the case. According to the discussions made in the case, more anomalies should not arise from conflicting rules and that the main purpose of having Courts is to bring justice to innocent people regardless of technicalities among these rules.
Several cases were presented to consider Ms. Silk's case. In one of the comments made by the Chief Judge, as revealed by our Lawyer, he said that cases such as these are especially tricky and that the time has come to apply rules on a case-to-case basis by providing guidelines to solve guest-host problems that arise from different states. These new rules will guarantee that decisions will be fair and predictable and be truly reasonable for all the parties involved. Furthermore, he cited principles to solve conflicts such as the case above. First, when a passenger and a driver in a guest-host relationship are domiciled in one state, and that the car was registered in the same state, the law of that state should apply. Next, when the accident occurred in the state of the driver's domicile, and the state does not make him liable for the accident, he must not be held liable under the laws of the victim's place of residence. On the other hand, if a guest was injured his own domicile and he or she may claim for damages, the driver who comes from a state with no-guest statute must not invoke the statute as a defense so that the victim will not be able to recover.
In addition to those principles, the Chief Judge further stated that when a driver and a passenger are domiciliary of different states, typically, the law that will be upheld will be that of the state where the accident happened (lex loci delicti) but not if this rule will substantially impair other states' laws and produce uncertainty for the parties. He also agreed that New York was the place of choice for this particular case. In addition, according to Judge Keating, although the origin of the guest-host relationship was in Michigan, since the car was registered and insured in New York, and that the parties’ place of residence is New York, then the choice of law must also be in New York. Moreover, the New York laws would cover the innocent parties who sustained injuries as a result of New York resident's activities.
In the end, according to the Judge, the trip was not adventitious because regardless of where the car has been registered and insured, the trip would have pushed through among the three parties. Also, one of the most important determinants is the place where the guest-host relationship arose, in this case, in Michigan. Moreover, the trip was all purely based in Michigan. Looking at these reasons, the Judge thinks that Michigan guest statute should also apply. He also opined that this case is not entirely a guest-host conflict case but involves a death-action statute. Where one party died because of the car accident, the driver or her estate must be liable. In this case, the estate of Ms. Tooker may be compensated for the suffering that her death caused her family. It is only unfortunate that whichever law was applied, Ms. Silk was still governed by another conflict law that did not uphold her right as a victim, but she should have been compensated as well. Therefore, the Plaintiff's motion to dismiss the Defendant's affirmative defense was denied.
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