341 U.S. 609 (1951), 355, Hughes v. Fetter

Docket Nº:No. 355
Citation:341 U.S. 609, 71 S.Ct. 980, 95 L.Ed. 1212
Party Name:Hughes v. Fetter
Case Date:June 04, 1951
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 609

341 U.S. 609 (1951)

71 S.Ct. 980, 95 L.Ed. 1212

Hughes

v.

Fetter

No. 355

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1951

Argued March 1-2, 1951

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF WISCONSIN

Syllabus

Appellant administrator brought this action in a Wisconsin state court to recover damages for the death of a decedent who was fatally injured in an automobile accident in Illinois. The complaint was based on the Illinois wrongful death statute, and named as defendants the allegedly negligent driver and an insurance company. Appellant, the decedent, and the individual defendant were residents of Wisconsin; appellant had been appointed administrator under Wisconsin laws, and the insurance company was a Wisconsin corporation. The trial court dismissed the complaint, pursuant to a Wisconsin statute which creates a right of action only for deaths caused in that State, and which establishes a local public policy against Wisconsin courts' entertaining suits brought under the wrongful death acts of other states.

Held: the statutory policy of Wisconsin which excludes from its courts this Illinois cause of action is in contravention of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Federal Constitution. Pp. 610-614.

(a) The Illinois statute is a "public act" within the meaning of the federal constitutional provision that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts . . . of every other State." P. 611.

(b) Wisconsin cannot escape its constitutional obligation to enforce the rights and duties validly created under the laws of other states by the simple device of removing jurisdiction from courts otherwise competent. P. 611.

(c) Wisconsin's policy against entertaining suits under the wrongful death acts of other states must give way, in the circumstances of this case, to the strong unifying principle embodied in the Full Faith and Credit Clause looking toward maximum enforcement in each state of the obligations or rights created or recognized by the statutes of sister states. Pp. 611-613.

(d) Assuming that the doctrine of forum non conveniens might, under some circumstances, justify a forum state in refusing to accord full faith and credit to acts of sister states, the Wisconsin statutory policy cannot be considered as an application of that doctrine, since this case is not one which lacks a close relationship with Wisconsin. Pp. 612-613.

257 Wis. 35, 42 N.W.2d 452, reversed.

Page 610

Appellant's action in a Wisconsin court, to recover damages for a wrongful death arising out of an accident which occurred in Illinois, was dismissed pursuant to the provisions of a Wisconsin statute. The State Supreme Court affirmed. 257 Wis. 35, 42 N.W.2d 452. On appeal to this Court, reversed and remanded, p. 614.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Basing his complaint on the Illinois wrongful death statute,1 appellant administrator brought this action in the Wisconsin state court to recover damages for the death of Harold Hughes, who was fatally injured in an automobile accident in Illinois. The allegedly negligent driver and an insurance company were named as defendants. On their motion, the trial court entered summary judgment "dismissing the complaint on the merits." It held that a Wisconsin statute, which creates a right of action only for deaths caused in that state, establishes a local public policy against Wisconsin's entertaining suits brought under the wrongful death acts of other states.2 The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed, notwithstanding the contention that the local statute, so construed, violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause of Art. IV, § 1 of the Constitution.3 The case is properly here on appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257.

Page 611

We are called upon to decide the narrow question whether Wisconsin, over the objection raised, can close the doors of its courts to the cause of action created by the Illinois wrongful death act.4 Prior decisions have established that the Illinois statute is a "public act" within the provision [71 S.Ct. 982] of Art. IV, § 1 that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts . . . of every other State."5 It is also settled that Wisconsin cannot escape this constitutional obligation to enforce the rights and duties validly created under the laws of other states by the simple device of removing jurisdiction from courts otherwise competent.6 We have recognized, however, that full faith and credit does not automatically compel a forum state to subordinate its own statutory policy to a conflicting public act of another state; rather, it is for this Court to choose in each case between the competing public policies involved.7 The clash of interests in cases of this type has usually been described as a conflict between

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the public policies of two or more states.8 The more basic conflict involved in the present appeal, however, is as follows: on the one hand is the strong unifying principle embodied in the Full Faith and Credit Clause looking toward maximum enforcement in each state of the obligations or rights created or recognized by the statutes of sister states;9 on the other hand is the policy of Wisconsin, as interpreted by its highest court, against permitting Wisconsin courts to entertain this wrongful death action.10

We hold that Wisconsin's policy must give way. That state has no real feeling of antagonism against wrongful death suits in general.11 To the contrary, a forum is regularly provided for cases [71 S.Ct. 983] of this nature, the exclusionary rule extending only so far as to bar actions for death not caused locally.12 The Wisconsin policy, moreover, cannot

Page 613

be considered as an application of the forum non conveniens doctrine, whatever effect that doctrine might be given if its use resulted in denying enforcement to public acts of other states. Even if we assume that Wisconsin could refuse, by reason of particular circumstances, to hear foreign controversies to which nonresidents were parties,13 the present case is not one lacking a close relationship with the state. For not only were appellant, the decedent, and the individual defendant all residents of Wisconsin, but also appellant was appointed administrator, and the corporate defendant was created under Wisconsin laws. We also think it relevant, although not crucial here, that Wisconsin may well be the only jurisdiction in which service could be had as an original matter on the insurance company defendant.14 And while in the present case jurisdiction over the individual defendant apparently could be had in Illinois by substituted service,15 in other cases, Wisconsin's exclusionary statute might amount to a deprivation of all opportunity to enforce valid death claims created by another state.

Under these circumstances, we conclude that Wisconsin's statutory policy which excludes this Illinois cause of action is forbidden by the national policy of the Full Faith and Credit Clause.16 The judgment is

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reversed, and the cause is remanded to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

FRANKFURTER, J., dissenting

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, whom MR. JUSTICE REED, MR. JUSTICE JACKSON, and MR. JUSTICE MINTON, join, dissenting.

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