Coons v. Lawlor

Decision Date15 October 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-1088,86-1088
Citation804 F.2d 28
PartiesCOONS, Richard C., Appellant, v. LAWLOR, Robert P., Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Alan L. Spielman (Argued), Lynn J. Benswanger, Alan L. Spielman, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pa., for appellant.

Benjamin E. Zuckerman (Argued), Sherr, Moses & Zuckerman, P.C., Norristown, Pa., for appellee.

Before BECKER, MANSMANN, Circuit Judges and TEITELBAUM, District Judge. *


BECKER, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Richard Coons, an Indiana citizen, appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Robert Lawlor, a Pennsylvania citizen, in a diversity action for damages arising out of a one-car accident on a New Jersey highway. This appeal requires us to decide whether an owner can be a guest in his or her own automobile under the Indiana guest statute. Coons argues that the District Court erred in its interpretation of Indiana's guest statute when it held that, in the absence of evidence of wanton or wilful misconduct by the driver, the statute would bar Coons as an owner-passenger from recovering from Lawlor, the negligent driver of Coons's car. In view of our construction of Indiana law, we reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for further proceedings.


The facts of this case are not in dispute. Lawlor is a citizen of Pennsylvania and Coons is a citizen of Indiana who holds an Indiana driver's license, registers his car in Indiana, and insures his car with an Indiana insurance carrier. At approximately 6:00 a.m. on June 18, 1983, the two began a trip to the New Jersey seashore. Shortly after they left Lawlor's Norristown, Pennsylvania home in Coons's car, Coons began to feel tired, and Lawlor relieved him at the wheel. At approximately 6:35 a.m., Lawlor fell asleep while driving in New Jersey, and the car struck a utility pole. As a result, Coons was injured and his car was damaged. To recover damages, he commenced this diversity action against Lawlor in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Upon Lawlor's motion, the district court granted summary judgment and dismissed the action. Looking to the conflicts law of the forum to decide what substantive law applied on the merits, see Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941), the district court applied the governmental interest analysis first adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Griffith v. United Air Lines, 416 Pa. 1, 203 A.2d 796 (1964). Pennsylvania had little interest in having its substantive laws applied to this case, held the district court, because "the purpose of the policy of allowing an injured party to recover damages is to allow injured Pennsylvanians to have a remedy[. I]t cannot be inferred that the interest of the policy is to protect a person from Indiana such as plaintiff here." At 6. Further, the court found that Coons was seeking the protection of "laws which would provide him a greater right [of recovery] than his own state provides for him." Id. at 7. Quoting Miller v. Gay, 323 Pa.Super. 446, 470 A.2d 1353, 1356 (1983), for the proposition that "inhabitants of a state ... should not be accorded rights not given them by their home states," the district court held that Indiana substantive law should control.

The Indiana guest statute, Ind.Code Ann. Sec. 9-3-3-1, was changed in 1984. P.L. 68-1984, Sec. 2. At the time of the accident here at issue, the statute read:

The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest, while being transported without payment therefor, in or upon such motor vehicle, resulting from the operation thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the wanton or wilful misconduct of such operator, owner or person responsible for the operation of such motor vehicle. 1

Because the courts of Indiana have had no occasion to decide whether an owner can be a guest in his own car for purposes of the earlier guest statute, the district court next attempted to predict how the highest court of Indiana would have decided the issue. The court first acknowledged the majority case law position from other states with guest statutes, which is that an owner cannot be a guest in his own car. The district court concluded that those cases construed statutes that had the sole purpose of fostering hospitality and deemed their reasoning inapplicable to the Indiana statute because, in addition to the hospitality rationale, Indiana's law is also intended to prevent collusive lawsuits that target insurance companies for damages. See Sidle v. Majors, 264 Ind. 206, 341 N.E.2d 763 (1976). Finding "[t]he possibility of collusion ... just as great when the owner is a passenger as when the owner is the operator," the district court held that the Indiana Supreme Court would find that an owner could be a guest in his own car. The District Court therefore granted summary judgment because, given no evidence of wanton or wilful misconduct by the driver, Coons's request for damages was foreclosed by the Indiana guest statute. This appeal followed.


The district court correctly noted that, in the tort law context, Pennsylvania adheres to the interest analysis approach to conflicts of law. See Griffith v. United Air Lines, supra; see also In re Complaint of Bankers Trust, 752 F.2d 874, 882 (3d Cir.1984) ("under Pennsylvania choice of law principles, the place having the most interest in the problem and which is the most intimately concerned with the outcome is the forum whose law should apply"). However, we need not address the question of which state has the greater interest in having its law apply to the case at bar. We find that the Supreme Court of Indiana would not consider Coons a guest in his own car. Because Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not have guest statutes, all three states are in accord; we are therefore presented with a "false conflict" and need not choose among their laws.

A. False Conflicts: The Initial Inquiry in Choice of Law Analysis

"The first question posed when choice of law appears to be at issue is whether a choice must really be made, i.e., whether different sovereigns whose laws may arguably be applied to the case have laws which conflict in relevant ways. See Cipolla v. Shaposka, 439 Pa. 563, 267 A.2d 854 (1970)." Melville v. American Home Assurance Co., 443 F.Supp. 1064, 1080 (E.D.Pa.1977), rev'd on other grounds, 584 F.2d 1306 (3d Cir.1978). If the various laws that might be applied to the case do not differ on the relevant issue, there is a false conflict. See In Re: Complaint of Bankers Trust Co., 752 F.2d 874, 882 (3d Cir.1984); Scoles & Hay, Conflict of Laws Sec. 2.6, at 17 & n. 8 (1984). Therefore, an examination of Indiana law is necessary at the outset.

B. The Indiana Guest Statute

Because guest statutes bar a gratuitous guest from recovering from any but a wanton and maliciously negligent host, the question whether an owner can be a guest in his own automobile has arisen in at least a score of states where an injured owner-passenger seeks to recover from another person who negligently drove the owner's car. 2 Yet only two state Supreme Courts have chosen to label an owner-passenger a "guest;" 3 all others that have reached the question have held that the owner-passenger does not relinquish his position as host merely by relinquishing the steering wheel. 4

Courts have utilized two principal lines of analysis to conclude that an owner-passenger is not a guest of the driver. Under the first, a court will look for interpretative guidance to the rationales that underly its guest statute. Most such courts have found that one purpose of a guest statute is to foster hospitality, 5 and they have recognized that the owner-passenger is the one who extends the hospitality to the driver by furnishing the automobile. See, e.g., Crider v. Sneider, 243 Ga. 642, 256 S.E.2d 335, 338 (1979); Summers v. Summers, 40 Ill.2d 338, 239 N.E.2d 795, 797-98 (1968); Degenstein v. Ehrman, 145 N.W.2d 493, 499 (N.D.1966); Baldwin v. Hill, 315 F.2d 738, 740-41 (6th Cir.1963); Peterson v. Winn, 84 Idaho 523, 373 P.2d 925, 928 (1962); see also Wilson v. Workman, 192 F.Supp. 852, 855 (D.Del.1961). The owner-passenger therefore remains the host and the driver is considered the guest.

The second line of analysis looks to the words of the statute and finds that an owner-passenger is not a "guest ... transported without payment therefor." Because the owner-passenger has furnished the driver with a significant benefit--the use of an automobile--the owner cannot be considered a gratuitous guest as is required by the statute. See, e.g., Crider v. Sneider, 243 Ga. 642, 256 S.E.2d 335, 338 (1979); Degenstein v. Ehrman, 145 N.W.2d 493 (N.D.1966).

The district court attempted to refute the first line of analysis by distinguishing the cases that relied on it on the basis that "Indiana finds that the purpose of guest statutes in addition to fostering hospitality is also to prohibit collusive suits which target insurance companies for damages." Slip op. at 9. In support of that proposition, the Court cited Sidle v. Majors, 264 Ind. 206, 341 N.E.2d 763 (1976), in which the Indiana Supreme Court upheld its guest statute against a state constitutional challenge because, among other reasons, the statute was justified as a means to minimize collusive lawsuits. 6 The court did not address the second, linguistic line of reasoning.

Upon scrutiny, however, it appears that the collusion rationale for the Indiana guest statute is extremely problematic. When the Seventh Circuit considered whether the Indiana guest statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 7 the court found that the collusion rationale advanced by the Supreme...

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