Phillips v. General Motors Corp.

Decision Date07 March 2000
Docket NumberNo. 99-410.,99-410.
Citation995 P.2d 1002,2000 MT 55
PartiesAlvin K. PHILLIPS, as Personal Representative of the Estates of Timothy Byrd, Darrell L. Byrd, and Angela Byrd, deceased, and as Guardian of Samuel Byrd, minor child, Plaintiffs, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

James H. Goetz (argued) and Robert K. Baldwin, Goetz, Gallik, Baldwin & Dolan, P.C.; Bozeman, Montana, James E. Butler, Jr. and Peter J. Daugherty, Butler, Wooten, Overby, Pearson, Fryhofer & Daugherty; Columbus, Georgia, Christopher P. Christian, Hutton & Hutton; Wichita, Kansas, For Plaintiffs.

Jay P. Lefkowitz (argued), Kirkland & Ellis; Washington, D.C., William Evan Jones, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson; Missoula, Montana, For Defendant.

William A. Rossbach, Rossbach Brennan, P.C.; Missoula, Montana, Jeffrey P. Foote, Attorney at Law; Portland, Oregon, Dennis M. Mestas, Attorney at Law; Anchorage, Alaska, For Amicus.

Justice JIM REGNIER delivered the opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 The United States District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, has certified the following questions to this Court pursuant to Rule 44, M.R.App.P.

¶ 2 1. Whether, in a personal injury/product liability/wrongful death action, where there is a potential conflict of laws, Montana will follow the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, including the "most significant relationship" test set forth in §§ 146 and 6, in the determination of which state's substantive law to apply?

¶ 3 2. Given the facts of this case, which state's law applies to plaintiff's various tort and damages claims under Montana's choice of law rules?

¶ 4 3. Does Montana recognize a "public policy" exception that would require application of Montana law even where Montana's choice of law rules dictate application of the laws of another state, and would such an exception apply in this case?

¶ 5 Our response to the certified questions can be simply stated. We adopt the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws for tort actions. Under the analysis contained in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, we conclude that given the facts as presented in the District Court's Order, the laws of Montana apply. Lastly, considerations of public policy are accounted for under the analysis contained in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶ 6 In its Order certifying these questions to the Supreme Court of Montana, the District Court submitted a statement of agreed facts. We stated in our Order accepting the certified questions that the facts of this case are restricted to those set forth in the certifying order. The following facts have been agreed upon by the parties for purposes of certification:

¶ 7 The vehicle which is the subject of this action was a 1985 Chevrolet pickup. The vehicle was originally sold by General Motors in North Carolina. Darrell Byrd subsequently purchased the pickup in or about February 1995 from Mike's Wholesale Cars in Newton, North Carolina. In doing so, he supplied a North Carolina address. The 1985 Chevrolet pickup truck was designed, tested, manufactured, and distributed by General Motors. The subject vehicle had fuel tanks mounted outside the frame rail.

¶ 8 On December 22, 1997, Darrell Byrd was driving with his family in the 1985 Chevrolet pickup truck from their home near Fortine, Montana, where Darrell Byrd was employed and where Timothy and Samuel Byrd attended school. The purpose of the trip was to spend Christmas vacation with family in North Carolina. The Byrds were domiciled in Montana before and at the time of the 1997 accident.

¶ 9 The wreck and fire which form the basis of this action occurred on December 22, 1997, on Interstate 70 near Russell, Kansas. A 1997 International semi-tractor trailer driven by Betty J. Kendall collided with the subject 1985 Chevrolet pickup truck driven by Darrell Byrd. A fire ensued. Darrell, Angela, and Timothy Byrd died. Samuel Byrd sustained personal injuries which required emergency treatment and hospitalization.

¶ 10 Before and at the time of the 1997 accident, Samuel, Timothy, Darrell, and Angela Byrd were Montana residents. The deceased, Darrell and Angela Byrd, were respectively the father and mother of the deceased, Timothy Byrd. Timothy was 13 years of age at the time of his death. Samuel Byrd, who survived the accident is also the son of the deceased, Darrell and Angela Byrd, and was 11 years old at the time of the 1997 accident.

¶ 11 Plaintiff Alvin Phillips is the legal guardian of Samuel Byrd and the personal representative of the estates of Angela Byrd, Darrell Byrd, and Timothy Byrd. Alvin Phillips resides in Newton, North Carolina. Samuel Byrd presently resides in North Carolina. Probate proceedings for the Estates of Timothy, Angela, and Darrell Byrd are filed with and pending in the Montana Nineteenth Judicial District Court, Lincoln County, Montana.

¶ 12 In these product liability cases, in which Plaintiffs raise claims of negligence and strict liability, Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages related to the deaths of Darrell, Angela, and Timothy Byrd and the personal injuries sustained by Samuel Byrd. General Motors denies all liability.

¶ 13 According to the District Court's Order, the parties disagree about the substantive law that should be applied to this case. "To determine the applicable law, a federal district court is to apply the choice of law rules of the state in which it sits." Federal Ins. Co. v. Scarsella Bros., Inc. (9th Cir. 1991), 931 F.2d 599, 602. Montana does not have a statutory provision governing choice of law nor has this Court reached a choice of law issue in a case involving conflicting tort rules. See In re Mower, 1999 MT 73, ¶ 27, 294 Mont. 35, ¶ 27, 979 P.2d 156, ¶ 27. Absent a definitive determination of Montana's choice of law rule in tort cases, federal judges for the District of Montana have applied the"most significant relationship" test of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws. See, e.g., O'Neal v. Koehring Bomag (J. Battin, 1995), 19 Mont. F. Rptr. 366.

¶ 14 The District Court observed that the instant case raised significant policy questions involving Montana's choice of law rules, that choice of law questions in tort cases are frequent in diversity litigation in federal court, and that it would be helpful in resolving this case and others to have a definitive determination of what the Montana choice of law rule is.

QUESTION ONE

¶ 15 Whether, in a personal injury/product liability/wrongful death action, where there is a potential conflict of laws, Montana will follow the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, including the "most significant relationship" test set forth in §§ 146 and 6, in the determination of which state's substantive law to apply?

¶ 16 The traditional choice of law rule, known as lex loci delicti commissi (or the law of place where the wrong was committed), provides that the infliction of injury is actionable under the law of the state in which it was received. See Alabama Great S. R.R. Co. v. Carroll (Ala.1892), 97 Ala. 126, 11 So. 803, 805. In Carroll, the plaintiff, a resident of Alabama employed by the Alabama Great Southern Railroad Company, an Alabama corporation, was injured when, because of the negligence of his fellow employees occurring in Alabama, a link between two freight cars broke in Mississippi. Carroll brought suit in Alabama. Although Alabama law recognized a cause of action for injuries caused by the negligence of fellow employees, Mississippi did not. Following the traditional rule, the Supreme Court of Alabama applied the law of the place of injury, Mississippi, despite the fact that the conduct giving rise to Carroll's injury occurred in Alabama, both Carroll and his employer were from Alabama, and the relationship between the parties was based on an employment contract entered into in Alabama.

¶ 17 The theoretical basis for the traditional rule was the "vested rights" theory propounded by Joseph H. Beale. The theory explained the forum's use of foreign legal rules in terms of the creation and enforcement of vested rights. According to Professor Beale's theory, the only law that can operate in a foreign territory is the law of the foreign sovereign. When an event occurred in a foreign territory (an injury caused by a defective product, for example), and under the laws of that territory that event gave rise to a right (damages), a right "vested" under that territory's law. The role of the forum court was simply to enforce the right which had vested in the foreign territory according to that territory's law. Crucial to this theory was a determination of where and when a right vested, because the law in place where the right vested would control the existence and content of the right. As evidenced by the decision in Carroll, courts have held that for tort claims a right vested where and when an injury occurred. See William M. Richman & David Riley, The First Restatement of Conflict of Laws on the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of its Successor: Contemporary Practice in Traditional Courts, 56 Md. L.Rev. 1196, 1197 (1997).

¶ 18 Traditional practice depends on a few broad, single-contact, jurisdiction-selecting rules. Traditionalist courts find the location of the last event necessary for a right to vest and apply the law of that location. As a result, courts following the traditional approach often choose the law of a state with no interest in the resolution of the dispute, like the choice of Mississippi law in Carroll. See Richman & Riley, supra, at 1198.

¶ 19 The traditional rule has largely been justified on the basis of the practical advantages that it offers: certainty, predictability, and forum neutrality. See Richman & Riley, supra, at 1200. However, problems inherent in its application as well as escape devices used to avoid results perceived to be arbitrary or unfair have...

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