Hataway v. McKinley

Decision Date27 April 1992
PartiesLouis G. HATAWAY, Jr., and Freddie D. Hataway, Parents and Next of Kin of Louis G. Hataway, III, Deceased, and Louis G. Hataway, Jr., and Freddie D. Hataway, Co-Administrators of the Estate of Louis G. Hataway, III, Deceased, Plaintiffs/Appellants, v. Robert W. McKINLEY, Defendant/Appellee.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Lee L. Piovarcy, David Wade, Scott T. Beall, Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston, P.C., Memphis, for plaintiffs/appellants.

John R. Cannon, Jr., Karen R. Renneisen, Hardison Law Firm, Memphis, for defendant/appellee.

OPINION

ANDERSON, Justice.

In this case, we are asked to decide whether the lex loci delicti conflicts-of-law doctrine should continue to be followed in tort cases in Tennessee. The decedent, Grady Hataway, died as a result of complications from a scuba dive in an Arkansas rock quarry. The dive took place as part of a scuba class taught at Memphis State University by the defendant, Robert McKinley. Although both the decedent and the defendant were life-long residents of Tennessee, the trial court followed previous decisions of this Court and held that Arkansas law governed the plaintiffs' wrongful death action under the lex loci delicti doctrine. The trial court's decision on this issue was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Our review of the background and modern development of conflicts of law rules convinces us that the lex loci delicti doctrine should be abandoned. Today we announce a new rule--the "most significant relationship" approach of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971). Applying the "most significant relationship" approach to the facts of this case, we find that the State of Tennessee has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties, and that Tennessee law should govern the action. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals' decision applying Arkansas law to this case.

BACKGROUND

On October 20, 1984, Grady Hataway died as a result of injuries he sustained during a scuba dive in a North Little Rock, Arkansas, rock quarry. The dive was supervised by the defendant, Robert W. McKinley, and conducted as part of a scuba class taught at Memphis State University. As a result of Hataway's death, his parents filed this wrongful death action in the Shelby County Circuit Court.

The trial court granted the defendant's motion to apply Arkansas law to the plaintiffs' wrongful death claims, based on Tennessee's lex loci rule, and the plaintiffs were allowed to amend their complaint to conform to Arkansas law. Thereafter, the case was tried before a jury on the basis of Arkansas's wrongful death statute, Ark.Code Ann. § 16-62-102 (Michie 1987), and Arkansas's comparative fault statute, Ark.Code Ann. § 16-64-122 (Michie 1987).

After a lengthy trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defendant. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that although Arkansas law was correctly applied, the trial court had erred by excluding from evidence defendant's admission. From the Court of Appeals' decision, both parties appealed to this Court. We granted the plaintiffs' application for permission to appeal limited to the issue of whether the trial court correctly applied Arkansas law to this case.

LEX LOCI DELICTI

The first issue we address on this appeal is whether there is a conflict between Arkansas and Tennessee law. Recovery by the plaintiffs under either Arkansas or Tennessee law is predicated on negligence, which is the failure to use reasonable and ordinary care under the circumstances which proximately causes the plaintiff's injuries. See Bowie v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co., 262 Ark. 793, 561 S.W.2d 314 (1978); Lindsey v. Miami Dev. Corp., 689 S.W.2d 856 (Tenn.1985). However, once the negligence of a defendant has been demonstrated, there is a major difference between the defenses that can be asserted by a defendant under Arkansas and Tennessee tort law.

Arkansas is a comparative fault state, which means that an Arkansas plaintiff's recovery is reduced by the amount of his fault. Ark.Code Ann. § 16-64-122 (Michie 1987). Under Arkansas law, a plaintiff is not barred from recovering damages from a defendant unless his fault is equal to or greater than the defendant's fault. Id. Under Tennessee law, however, a plaintiff is completely barred from recovering damages if he was contributorially negligent, even if his negligence was of a lesser degree than the defendant's. Arnold v. Hayslett, 655 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tenn.1983). The only way a plaintiff can recover damages in Tennessee despite his contributory fault is if a jury finds that his conduct was too remote in time and place to be considered a proximate cause of his injuries. Id.

In addition to the contrast in negligence law, there is a difference between the wrongful death statutes of Arkansas and Tennessee. Arkansas' wrongful death statute allows recovery "for the pecuniary injuries ... and mental anguish resulting from the death, to the surviving spouse and next of kin of the deceased person." Ark.Code Ann. § 16-62-102(f) (Michie 1987) (emphasis added). Tennessee's wrongful death statute, on the other hand, allows recovery "for the mental and physical suffering, loss of time, and necessary expenses resulting to the deceased from the personal injuries, and also the damages resulting to the parties for whose use and benefit the right of action survives from the death consequent upon the injuries received." Tenn.Code Ann. § 20-5-113 (1980) (emphasis added).

Given the difference between comparative fault in Arkansas and contributory negligence in Tennessee, as well as the difference between the wrongful death statutes, we conclude that there is a conflict between Arkansas and Tennessee law which is a necessary predicate to deciding which state's law should govern this wrongful death action.

The doctrine of lex loci delicti has been the rule in Tennessee for over 100 years. See East Tennessee, V. & G.R. Co. v. Lewis, 89 Tenn. 235, 14 S.W. 603 (1890). Under this doctrine, a Tennessee court will determine the substantive rights of an injured party according to the law of the state where the injury occurred. Winters v. Maxey, 481 S.W.2d 755, 756 (Tenn.1972). However, there is a public policy exception to the doctrine and the law of Tennessee will be applied "where the law of the jurisdiction where the tort occurred is against good morals or natural justice, or for some other reason, its enforcement would be prejudicial to the general interests of our citizens." Id. (The majority in Winters v. Maxey, decided the public policy exception did not apply to an Alabama guest statute which requires a showing of willful or wanton conduct before a guest passenger can recover.)

The plaintiffs argue that the doctrine of lex loci delicti should be abandoned by this Court because it is obsolete, unjust, and arbitrary. Adherence to the doctrine, the plaintiffs say, often leads to application of the law of a state that has no interest in the controversy or no contact with the parties other than the fortuitous circumstance that the injury occurred in that state. The defendant, on the other hand, maintains that we should retain the doctrine because it promotes certainty, predictability, and uniformity in conflicts cases. According to the defendant, the rationale of Winters v. Maxey is still viable today, because the jurisdictions abandoning lex loci delicti have suffered from increased litigation due to the inconsistent results reached under modern choice of law theories.

In Winters v. Maxey, supra, this Court was squarely confronted with the question of whether the lex loci delicti doctrine should be abandoned in Tennessee. After reviewing cases that had adopted and applied a modern "dominant contacts" rule, the Winters court retained the old rule because it found that the modern theories do not "provide any 'uniform common law of conflicts' to take the place of the uniform rule of lex loci delicti." Winters, 481 S.W.2d at 758. Justice Humphrey's dissent recognized, however, that change was inevitable.

[W]hile I think the adoption of a general rule such as that in Restatement is inevitable as our society grows more mobile and the interest of the State in its citizens ever increases, I am content, for the present, to base my disagreement with the majority on its failure to recognize that the Alabama guest statute is contrary to justice, is contrary to good morals, and is contrary to the policy of this State....

Id. at 760.

At the time Winters was decided, lex loci was still the majority rule, although 15 states and the District of Columbia had repudiated lex loci delicti in favor of an "analysis of contacts" rule. Id. Since the Winters decision, however, numerous states have abandoned lex loci in favor of a more modern theory, just as Justice Humphrey predicted.

Our review of the cases from other jurisdictions reveals that an ever shrinking number of states (15) continue to follow lex loci delicti. These states include Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. See Fitts v. Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co., 581 So.2d 819 (Ala.1991); Risdon Enterprises, Inc. v. Colemill Enterprises, Inc., 172 Ga.App. 902, 324 S.E.2d 738 (1984); Ling v. Jan's Liquors, 237 Kan. 629, 703 P.2d 731 (1985); Hauch v. Connor, 295 Md. 120, 453 A.2d 1207 (1983); Lewis v. Reader's Digest Ass'n, Inc., 162 Mont. 401, 512 P.2d 702 (1973); Karlsen v. Jack, 80 Nev. 201, 391 P.2d 319 (1964); First Nat'l Bank in Albuquerque v. Benson, 89 N.M. 481, 553 P.2d 1288, cert. denied, 90 N.M. 7, 558 P.2d 619 (1976); Boudreau v. Baughman, 322 N.C. 331, 368 S.E.2d 849 (1988); Oshiek v. Oshiek, 244 S.C. 249, 136 S.E.2d 303 (1964); Owen v. Owen, 444 N.W.2d 710 (S.D.1989); Velasquez v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 12 Utah 2d 379, 366 P.2d 989 (1961); Goldman v. Beaudry, ...

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