965 F.2d 195 (7th Cir. 1992), 90-3278, Barron v. Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd.

Docket Nº:90-3278.
Citation:965 F.2d 195
Party Name:Tina BARRON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY OF CANADA LIMITED, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:May 26, 1992
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Page 195

965 F.2d 195 (7th Cir. 1992)

Tina BARRON, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY OF CANADA LIMITED, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 90-3278.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 26, 1992

Argued Jan. 21, 1992.

Page 196

Richard E. Grawey, Cusack & Fleming, Peoria, Ill., Dan Bandklayder, Stanley M. Rosenblatt (argued), Miami, Fla., for plaintiff-appellant.

Francis D. Morrissey, Baker & McKenzie, Chicago, Ill., Nicholas J. Bertschy, Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, Peoria, Ill., John M. Thomas (argued), Ford Motor Co., Office of Gen. Counsel, Dearborn, Mich., for defendant-appellee.

Before POSNER, EASTERBROOK, and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

POSNER, Circuit Judge.

Tina Barron, age 18, was rendered paraplegic and forced onto the welfare rolls as the result of an accident in 1984 in which the car she was riding in (driven by her sister) skidded on a rain-slick highway in North Carolina and turned over. Because Barron was not wearing a seatbelt (although

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the car was equipped with seatbelts), she was flung out of the car, either through the closed sunroof, as she claims, or through the window on the passenger's side of the front seat, which was also closed. Although a citizen of Illinois, Barron brought suit against Ford Motor Company of Canada, the manufacturer of the car, in a Florida state court. The parties being of diverse citizenship and Ford not a citizen of Florida, Ford was able to remove the case to federal district court in Florida, from which it sought to transfer the case, on grounds of convenience, 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), to the Eastern District of North Carolina. The plaintiff countered with a request to transfer the case to the Central District of Illinois, and her request was granted and the case transferred. Applying Florida's rules on conflict of laws (and thus anticipating Ferens v. John Deere Co., 494 U.S. 516, 110 S.Ct. 1274, 108 L.Ed.2d 443 (1990), which holds that the transferee court must apply the conflict of laws rules of the transferor jurisdiction whether the defendant or the plaintiff requested the transfer), Judge Mihm ruled that the law of North Carolina--as it happens, the only state in the United States not to recognize strict liability in products cases, Smith v. Fiber Controls Corp., 300 N.C. 669, 678, 268 S.E.2d 504, 509-10 (1980); Warren v. Colombo, 93 N.C.App. 92, 102, 377 S.E.2d 249, 255 (1989)--governed the substantive issues in the case. 716 F.Supp. 377 (C.D.Ill.1989). A two-week jury trial, in which the plaintiff tried to prove that she had been ejected through the sunroof and that Ford had been negligent in making the sunroof out of tempered rather than laminated glass, ended in a verdict for Ford.

Barron argues to begin with that the judge should have applied Illinois law, which imposes strict liability in products cases, rather than North Carolina law, which requires the plaintiff to prove negligence. It is not easy to see what difference this would have made to the outcome of the case; and before entangling itself in messy issues of conflict of laws a court ought to satisfy itself that there actually is a difference between the relevant laws of the different states. International Administrators, Inc. v. Life Ins. Co., 753 F.2d 1373, 1376 n. 4 (7th Cir.1985). There might seem to be all the difference in the world between negligence and strict liability, but in a products liability case this often is not true. The plaintiff must prove either that the product was defective or that it was unreasonably dangerous, and in determining whether a product is "defective" or "unreasonably" dangerous the court weighs costs and benefits just as it would do in a negligence case. See Flaminio v. Honda Motor Co., 733 F.2d 463, 467 (7th Cir.1984), and references cited there. The difference between the two grounds of liability bites when the defendant is being sued for a product defect created by a component that he had bought, and he could not be sued for negligence because he used all due care in buying, inspecting, and installing it, so that he was without blame yet is liable nonetheless if liability is strict. Id. That is not an issue in this case. Ford did not buy the sunroof; it designed, manufactured, and installed it.

So this appears to be a case of a false conflict; but if he had to choose, Judge Mihm was right to apply North Carolina law rather than (as the plaintiff urges) Illinois law. It is true that Barron was a citizen of Illinois before she made a visit of several months' duration to her sister in North Carolina, in the course of which the accident occurred; and after a brief period of hospitalization in North Carolina she returned to Illinois, where she remains today, a public charge. And it is true that Ford of Canada (or for that matter its American parent) is not a citizen of North Carolina. But in Florida as in most states (for remember that it is Florida conflict of laws principles that govern this case), despite the inroads that "interest analysis" and "most significant relationship" inquiry have made on the simplicities of the old common law conflicts principles, the presumption remains that the law of the state in which the accident occurred governs tort claims arising from the accident, Bishop v. Florida Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999, 1001 (Fla.1980); State

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Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Olsen, 406 So.2d 1109, 1111 (Fla.1981), although the presumption is rebuttable. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Budget Rent-A-Car Systems, 567 So.2d 918, 920 (Fla.App.1990). That state is concerned in an accident even if neither party is a resident--clearly so in a case such as this, where one of the parties to the accident, albeit not to the lawsuit, was a resident of the state (Tina Barron's sister). And its tort principles may be informed by familiarity with local conditions, which is another reason to apply those principles rather than the tort law of the plaintiff's or the defendant's domicile. William F. Baxter, "Choice of Law and the Federal System," 16 Stan.L.Rev. 1 (1963).

A further reason to doubt that Barron was placed at a disadvantage by the application of North Carolina law to her case is that it is North Carolina law that arms her with the ground of appeal she presses most strongly--that the judge should not have let Ford introduce any evidence about seatbelt use because North Carolina has a strong common law rule, now codified by statute, that evidence that a plaintiff didn't fasten his seatbelt is inadmissible in any civil action. Hagwood v. Odom, 88 N.C.App. 513, 516-17, 364 S.E.2d 190, 191-92 (1988). This may be, as we shall see, an overbroad statement of the common law rule; and yet the statute (which is not applicable to this case, however, because the case arose before its effective date) goes even further than the rule as we have stated it. For it provides that "evidence of failure to wear a seat belt shall not be admissible in any criminal or civil trial, action, or proceeding except in an action based on a violation of this section." N.C.Gen.Stat. § 20-135.2A(d) (emphasis added). The section in question is a mandatory seatbelt law, and evidence of nonuse can of course be introduced in a proceeding to impose a penalty for violation of the law. But if the statute is read literally, that is the only type of proceeding in which such evidence can be introduced. So if an irate passenger ripped off his seat belt, tore it from its moorings, and used it to strangle the driver, in the ensuing murder trial the prosecution would be forbidden to identify the murder weapon because to do so would be to show that the defendant had not been wearing his seatbelt.

The literal reading of the statute--more to the point, of the common law rule that preceded it, at least as the plaintiff understands that rule--would thus rule out Ford's presenting evidence, as it did, that Tina Barron was not wearing her seatbelt when the accident occurred. It is true that this was not the focus, at least not the nominal focus, of the testimony about seatbelts. Ford's point was merely that the provision of seatbelts was a part of the automobile's overall restraint system, so that the reasonableness of making the sunroof of tempered rather than of laminated glass was a function in part of the other steps Ford had taken to prevent occupants from being flung out. But it could not make the argument without indicating that Barron had not been wearing her seatbelt, since if she had been and it had not kept her from flying through the sunroof Ford's argument about its total restraint system would fall flat on its face.

The literal interpretation of North Carolina's rule, though, is almost certainly incorrect. In State v. Brewer, 328 N.C. 515, 522, 402 S.E.2d 380, 385 (1991), a prosecution of a woman for murdering her disabled daughter by abandoning her car with the daughter in it on a railroad crossing, the Supreme Court of North Carolina remarked, without criticism, the introduction of evidence that the daughter knew how to release her seatbelt; it never occurred to anyone that such evidence might be inadmissible.

If it were inadmissible under North Carolina law, moreover, this might not help the plaintiff in this case. Even in diversity cases the rules of evidence applied in federal courts are...

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