Decision Date29 September 1989
Docket NumberNo. 742.,742.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan


Charles Brewer, Phoenix, Ariz., Stanley Chesley, Cincinnati, Ohio, Lee Kreindler, New York City, Gerald Lear, Thomas Meehan, Washington, D.C., Richard Schaden, Birmingham, Mich., for plaintiff's Steering Committee.

Carroll E. Dubuc, Washington, D.C., for defendant Northwest Airlines.

John J. Hennelly, Los Angeles, Cal., Donald E. Shely, Detroit, Mich., for defendant McDonnell Douglas.


JULIAN ABELE COOK, Jr., Chief Judge.

This Order is designed to resolve the plethora of pleadings that have raised choice of law issues in this multidistrict litigation.1 In a case of this magnitude, in which one hundred fifty-seven claims have been filed in four federal judicial districts against two defendants that are incorporated in different states, the choice of law questions are numerous. Yet, all of them must be resolved as expeditiously as possible. The prospect of deciding choice of law questions in a multidistrict context prompted Judge Pierson M. Hall to state:

The law on "choice of law" in the various states and in the federal courts is a veritable jungle, which, if the law can be found out, leads not to a "rule of action" but a reign of chaos dominated in each case by the judge's "informed guess" as to what some other state other than the one in which he sits would hold its law to be.

In re Paris Air Crash of March 3, 1974, 399 F.Supp. 732, 739 (C.D.Cal.1975).

In the case sub judice, the legal quagmire known as choice of law has once again reared its ugly head in the multidistrict context and currently requires the immediate attention and resources of this Court. For the following reasons, this Court concludes that (1) the law of California shall apply to all Plaintiffs' product liability claims against McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC), (2) the law of Michigan shall apply to all Plaintiffs' punitive and exemplary damage claims except those cases that were filed in California against MDC, in which case, the law of California shall apply, and (3) the parties must rebrief the choice of law issues concerning the Plaintiffs' claims for compensatory damages on a date which shall be established by this Court.2


On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines Flight 255, a DC-9 aircraft which was designed and manufactured by MDC, crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport and resulted in the death of one hundred fifty-six persons. Cecelia Cichan, four years of age, was the sole surviving passenger of the crash.

Less than two weeks later (August 28, 1987), the first case was filed in the Eastern District of Michigan. On December 9, 1987, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered the transfer of all Flight 255 federal cases to this district for consolidated pretrial proceedings.

On August 18, 1989, this Court issued an Order in which it (1) transferred and consolidated all cases relating to the Flight 255 matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a); Fed.R. Civ.P. 42(a), (2) bifurcated the issue of liability from the issue of damages, see Fed. R.Civ.P. 42(b), and (3) scheduled the commencement of a joint liability trial, which was designed to resolve all liability issues, for October 2, 1989. See In re Air Crash Disaster at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on August 16, 1987, 737 F.Supp. 391 (E.D. Mich.1989).

As of the date of this Order, one hundred fifty seven cases have been filed in this matter on behalf of the passengers and flight attendants on the accident aircraft who died or were injured in the crash, and those persons who were killed or injured as a result of being present at the accident site at the time of the crash. These cases were originally filed in Michigan, Arizona, California, and Florida.3 The Defendants, Northwest Airlines, Inc. (Northwest) and McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC), have also filed cross claims and third party claims against each other.4

Generally, the Plaintiffs have filed wrongful death claims in which they seek compensatory, as well as punitive, damages from MDC and Northwest.5 The Plaintiffs' allegations of wrongdoing by Northwest focuses on (1) the preflight and take-off conduct of the flight crew, (2) the maintenance of the accident aircraft, and (3) the training of the flight crew. With regard to the alleged misconduct of MDC, the Plaintiffs' claims center on (1) the design, testing, and manufacture of the accident aircraft, and (2) the failure to warn of known deficiencies of certain components and instruments on the accident aircraft.

The parties in this case maintain that choice of law issues exist in the following contested matters: (1) MDC's potential liability for the alleged design defects, (2) Northwest's and MDC's potential liability for punitive or exemplary damages, and (3) Plaintiffs' individual claims for compensatory damages. These are the issues that will now be resolved by this Court.6


At the onset of any case in which legally significant facts have occurred in more than one state, the Court must identify those states that have sufficient contacts with this litigation. Once these states have been identified, this Court must determine whether the various substantive laws at issue differ with regard to the particular issues in contest. Should the substance of the relevant state laws differ or conflict, then it will become necessary to apply the choice of law rules of the forum states. See e.g., In re Air Crash Disaster Near Chicago, Illinois, 644 F.2d 594, 605 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 878, 102 S.Ct. 358, 70 L.Ed.2d 187 (1981).

This may result in the application of "the rules of different states to determine different issues in the same case."7 Reese, Depecage: A Common Phenomenon in Choice of Law, 73 Colum.L.Rev. 58, 75 (1973). The parties in the instant cause have, in large part, ignored this principle by arguing that the law of a particular state should govern all issues which relate to a particular defendant. In most states that have abandoned the lex loci delicti rule, the resolution of the choice of law analysis will depend upon the issue in question. The search in these cases is not to determine which state law will be applied to all of the issues in a case, but to identify the rule of law that will be applied to each particular issue in which a conflict is presented.

It is well settled that a federal court, which sits in diversity matters, must apply the choice of law rules of the forum state. Klaxton Co. v. Senator Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1942); Erie R. R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). It has also been established that when a case is transferred pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404, the transferee court must apply the choice of law rules of the transferor forum.8 Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 84 S.Ct. 805, 11 L.Ed.2d 945 (1964); In re Benedectin Litigation, 857 F.2d 290, 306 (6th Cir.1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1006, 109 S.Ct. 788, 102 L.Ed.2d 779 (1989); Martin v. Stokes, 623 F.2d 469, 471-74 (6th Cir.1980). On the basis of the record in the case sub judice, the relevant choice of law rules at issue are those of Michigan, Arizona, California, and Florida.

All of these states have abandoned the lex loci delicti doctrine as a methodology for resolving choice of law questions. Instead, these jurisdictions have adopted an approach which focuses on, in varying ways, the interest that each state has in having its substantive law apply in a particular case.

Michigan, which has refused to adopt an established choice of law methodology, essentially considers whether there exists a "rational reason" to displace the law of the forum in favor of the law of another state. See Olmstead v. Anderson, 428 Mich. 1, 400 N.W.2d 292 (1987). Both Arizona and Florida have adopted the approach of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (Restatement). See Bishop v. Florida Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999 (Fla.1980); Schwartz v. Schwartz, 103 Ariz. 562, 447 P.2d 254 (1968). California has incorporated the so-called "comparative impairment" approach. See Bernhard v. Harrah's Club, 16 Cal.3d 313, 128 Cal.Rptr. 215, 546 P.2d 719 (1976). The following is a concise discussion of the choice of law principles in these four states.


In Sexton v. Ryder Truck Rental, 413 Mich. 406, 320 N.W.2d 843 (1982), the Michigan Supreme Court abandoned lex loci delicti as an absolute rule, but declined to adopt a particular choice of law rule. However, in Olmstead v. Anderson, 428 Mich. 1, 29-30, 400 N.W.2d 292, 304-05 (1987), the Michigan high court determined that, when presented with conflicting laws, the courts must consider whether there exists a "rational reason to displace Michigan law in the case," which focused upon (1) the particular interest that each state has in having its substantive law apply to the precise issue in question, and (2) whether applying lex loci delicti will advance the interests of certainty, predictability of results, and prevention of forum shopping.9


In the context of an alleged tort involving a foreign element, the Arizona and Florida courts apply the principles of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws (Restatement) in order to identify the substantive law that is to be applied to the issue presented. See Bates v. Superior Court of Arizona, 156 Ariz. 46, 749 P.2d 1367 (1988); Schwartz v. Schwartz, 103 Ariz. 562, 447 P.2d 254 (1968); Bishop v. Florida Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999 (Fla.1980).

With regard to wrongful death claims, the Restatement (Second) essentially reflects a presumption that the laws of the state where the injury occurred should govern "unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in § 6." RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONFLICT OF LAWS §...

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