Coons v. Lawlor, No. 86-1088

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore BECKER, MANSMANN, Circuit Judges and TEITELBAUM; BECKER
Citation804 F.2d 28
PartiesCOONS, Richard C., Appellant, v. LAWLOR, Robert P., Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 86-1088
Decision Date15 October 1986

Page 28

804 F.2d 28
COONS, Richard C., Appellant,
v.
LAWLOR, Robert P., Appellee.
No. 86-1088.
United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.
Argued Aug. 20, 1986.
Decided Oct. 15, 1986.

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. *

OPINION OF THE COURT

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.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The facts of this case are not in dispute. Lawlor is a citizen of Pennsylvania and

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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

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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.

II. DISCUSSION

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....

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11 practice notes
  • Hammersmith v. Tig Ins. Co., No. 05-3730.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 15 Marzo 2007
    ...v. Stone, 109 F.3d 890, 893 (3d Cir.1997) (same); Lucker Mfg. v. Home Ins. Co., 23 F.3d 808, 813 (3d Cir.1994) (same); Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986) ("If the various laws that might be applied to the case do not differ on the relevant issue, there is a false conflict."); Co......
  • JMPH WETHERELL v. Sentry Reinsurance, Inc., No. 85-7061.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 31 Julio 1990
    ...intimately concerned with the outcome is the forum whose law should be applied." Bankers Trust, 752 F.2d at 882. See also Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986); Blakesley v. Wolford, 789 F.2d 236, 239 (3d In this case, however, I need not determine which state has the greater inter......
  • Sound of Market Street, Inc. v. Continental Bank Intern., No. 86-1358
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 15 Junio 1987
    ...not resolve this issue if the laws of New York and Pennsylvania would not conflict on the resolution of this dispute. Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986). Because we find that neither New York nor Pennsylvania would impose a duty of timely transmission upon an advising bank, we f......
  • Bhatnagar v. Surrendra Overseas Ltd., No. 93-2059
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 17 Abril 1995
    ...of negligence, the court did not have to find that Indian law applied because there was no "true conflict" of law. See Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986). We agree with the Bhatnagars that Indian and American negligence law are essentially the same with respect to duty, breach, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
11 cases
  • Hammersmith v. Tig Ins. Co., No. 05-3730.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 15 Marzo 2007
    ...v. Stone, 109 F.3d 890, 893 (3d Cir.1997) (same); Lucker Mfg. v. Home Ins. Co., 23 F.3d 808, 813 (3d Cir.1994) (same); Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986) ("If the various laws that might be applied to the case do not differ on the relevant issue, there is a false conflict."); Co......
  • JMPH WETHERELL v. Sentry Reinsurance, Inc., No. 85-7061.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 31 Julio 1990
    ...intimately concerned with the outcome is the forum whose law should be applied." Bankers Trust, 752 F.2d at 882. See also Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986); Blakesley v. Wolford, 789 F.2d 236, 239 (3d In this case, however, I need not determine which state has the greater inter......
  • Sound of Market Street, Inc. v. Continental Bank Intern., No. 86-1358
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 15 Junio 1987
    ...not resolve this issue if the laws of New York and Pennsylvania would not conflict on the resolution of this dispute. Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986). Because we find that neither New York nor Pennsylvania would impose a duty of timely transmission upon an advising bank, we f......
  • Bhatnagar v. Surrendra Overseas Ltd., No. 93-2059
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 17 Abril 1995
    ...of negligence, the court did not have to find that Indian law applied because there was no "true conflict" of law. See Coons v. Lawlor, 804 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir.1986). We agree with the Bhatnagars that Indian and American negligence law are essentially the same with respect to duty, breach, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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