211 So.2d 509 (Miss. 1968), 44895, Mitchell v. Craft

Docket Nº44895.
Citation211 So.2d 509
Party NameJudy Ann MITCHELL, Administratrix of the Estate of Hugo Mitchell, Deceased v. Mrs. Inell CRAFT, Administratrix of the Estate of L. W. Jackson, Deceased.
Case DateJune 10, 1968
CourtSupreme Court of Mississippi

Page 509

211 So.2d 509 (Miss. 1968)

Judy Ann MITCHELL, Administratrix of the Estate of Hugo

Mitchell, Deceased

v.

Mrs. Inell CRAFT, Administratrix of the Estate of L. W.

Jackson, Deceased.

No. 44895.

Supreme Court of Mississippi.

June 10, 1968

Page 510

Dudley W. Conner, Hattiesburg, for appellant.

R. L. Willett, E. R. Alley, Laurel, Williams & Williams, Picayune, for appellee.

ETHRIDGE, Chief Justice.

This suit was brought in the Circuit Court of Pearl River County by appellee, Mrs. Inell Craft, administratrix of the estate of L. W. Jackson, deceased, for his wrongful death in an automobile accident which occurred in Louisiana. The defendant-appellant is Judy Ann Mitchell, administratrix of the estate of Hugo Mitchell, deceased, who was killed in the same two-car collision. Mitchell filed a counterclaim. The circuit court gave peremptory instructions for plaintiff against defendant on liability and for cross-defendant on the counterclaim of Mitchell. The jury returned a verdict of $12,000, and from a judgment based thereon this appeal has been taken.

This case involves a choice-of-law or conflict-of-law problem in an action for wrongful death resulting from an automobile accident, in which plaintiff's decedent and defendant's decedent were in separate cars. Both decedents were domiciled in Mississippi, their estates are being administered here, and whatever expectations they might have had were centered in Mississippi. This State has a comparative negligence statute and Louisiana has the common-law rule by which contributory negligence bars recovery. We modify the previously existing rule in this jurisdiction, which applied invariably the law of the place of injury, and hold that under the factual situation existing in this case, the most substantial relationships of the parties and the dominant interest of the forum require application of Mississippi law, in accordance with the principles summarized in the Restatement (Second) Conflict of Laws sections 175, 145, 164 and 6 (Proposed Official Draft, Adopted May 24, 1968).

Since the circuit court erroneously gave a peremptory instruction to plaintiff on defendant's liability, and on cross-defendant's nonliability, the case is reversed and remanded for a new trial.

I.

All of the parties to the collision were resident citizens of Mississippi. L. W. Jackson, the plaintiff's decedent, was a resident of Laurel, Mississippi. For the past week he had been working as a roustabout for an oil company on an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River, out from Harvey, Louisiana. He worked on a twelve-hour shift for a week, and then was off a week, which enabled him to go home on alternate weeks. Jackson had been divorced from his wife for several years. They had three children, who were living with their mother in Pennsylvania. Jackson had been living at his sister's residence in Laurel, which she said had been his headquarters and home for a long time. She understood that he was coming home when the accident occurred. Toxey Slade, who worked for the same company as Jackson and was with him at the time of the accident, was from Lamar County, Mississippi.

The defendant-appellant's decedent, Hugo Mitchell, driver of the other car, was a resident citizen of Picayune, Mississippi, which is eight miles north of the scene of the accident. He was thirty years of age and married. On the night he was killed the had taken his wife and child to a circus, apparently in Picayune. The other occupant of Hugo's car was his brother, Mackie Gene Mitchell, twenty-three years of ago.

The accident occurred in Louisiana around 12:45 a.m., March 6, 1965, on Interstate Highway 59, about two miles south of the Mississippi line. It was a dark night and the weather was cold and dry. L. W. Jackson, accompanied by Toxey Slade, was driving his 1954 Dodge north toward the Mississippi line. Highway 59 has two northbound traffic lanes which are paved with concrete and are each about twelve feet wide. On each side of the two

Page 511

northbound lanes is an asphalt sevice shoulder approximately eight to ten feet wide. The southbound traffic lanes are separated from those northbound by a neutral ground and a gully.

Driving north in the right-hand traffic lane, Jackson's 1954 Dodge came to a stop when the driveshaft came loose from the transmission. Slade, the only surviving eyewitness, said that they coasted about 250 feet before the car stopped in the right traffic lane. Jackson opened the door and stated that he could fix it 'in a minute.' He squatted down and then rolled beneath the car and started working with the transmission. At Jackson's request that Slade get him 'a little light under here,' Slade got out of the car and walked around to the driver's side with a cigarette lighter, but had not ignited it. The headlights and the left taillight were burning. (Slade did not know whether the right one was on or not.) Slade said that he became aware of an oncoming northbound vehicle about three-fourths of a mile down the highway, which was straight and level. Apparently he assumed that the oncoming vehicle, the Mitchell car, would pass them in the left traffic lane. Suddenly he became aware that the Mitchell car was not in the other lane, and seeing it headed for the stalled Jackson car, Slade jumped as far as he could into the left lane and ran across it. He estimated that the Mitchell car was traveling sixty-five to seventy miles per hour. The first things which attracted his attention were the headlights directly behind him and the squeal of brakes.

Hugo Mitchell was driving his 1964 Chevrolet sedan, with his brother, Mackie Gene, sitting next to him. The Mitchell car skidded about forty feet before its impact with the stalled Jackson vehicle and thereafter several car lengths. When it collided with the rear of the Jackson car, both burst into flames. Jackson and Hugo and Mackie Gene Mitchell were killed.

Slade said that he told Jackson that he should push the car off of the traveled portion of the highway, but Jackson replied that it would take only a minute to fix it. Slade did not inform Jackson of the approaching car; he apparently thought it would move into the left lane. A Louisiana state trooper, who arrived sometime after the accident, stated that the asphalt shoulder was sufficiently wide for a car to park on and not be in danger of traffic. It was also wide enough for a following car to drive upon and avoid a stalled vehicle in the right lane. The left traffic lane would also have been available, if Slade had not been running across it at the time.

Plaintiff, Jackson's administratrix, charged that the proximate cause of the accident was Mitchell's excessive speed, failure to keep a lookout and his car under control, and failure to pass the Jackson car in the passing lane. The defendant, administratrix of Mitchell's estate, filed a counterclaim for damages against the plaintiff, administratrix of Jackson's estate, charging that Jackson was guilty of negligence causing the accident in stopping his car so that it obstructed the east lane of northbound traffic, when Jackson had sufficient time and opportunity to move his car off of that lane onto the shoulder, and in failing to display signal lights sufficient to warn approaching traffic.

At the close of the trial, the circuit court gave a peremptory instruction for the cross-defemdant on the counterclaim filed by Mitchell. It apparently concluded that Jackson was not guilty of any actionable negligence proximately contributing to the accident.

The circuit court also gave a perremptory instruction for plaintiff, administratrix of Jackson's estate, on Mitchell's liability, and submitted the question of damages to the jury. The trial court refused thirteen instructions requested by the defendant which were based on the substantive law of Louisiana. Several of them stated that Jackson's contributory negligence, if any, proximately contributing to the accident would bar plaintiff's suit. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff for $12,000 and a judgment was entered against Mitchell

Page 512

for that sum and for the cross-defendant on the Mitchell counterclaim. Defendant's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial, which was overruled, asserted among other grounds that the court erred in refusing 'to apply the Louisiana law for a cause of action which arose in Louisiana.' This was overruled.

Appellant argues that the trial court erred in applying the substantive law of Mississippi to a motor vehicle collision that occurred in Louisiana. Louisiana substantive law, she asserts, should apply, and in that State contributory negligence bars recovery. Appellee contends that both Mitchell and Jackson, as well as their guest passengers, who are not involved in this suit, were resident citizens of Mississippi; that both decedent drivers were traveling to their respective homes in Mississippi at the time of the collision; and that under the center-of-gravity or most substantial relationship rule, the substantive law of Mississippi is applicable, since the place of accident was purely fortuitous, and the interest of Mississippi in both decedents, their estates, and their expectations of their rights under Mississippi law, including its comparative negligence statute, is dominant.

II.

We are concerned here with two wrongful death actions, involving Mississippi residents and their Mississippi estates, and arising from a two-car collision which occurred in the State of Louisiana. The Mississippi administratrix of the estate of one of the decedents sued, in a Mississippi court, the Mississippi administratrix of the estate of the other decedent, who in turn filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff. Both parties alleged negligence by the other's decedent,...

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