Proprietors Ins. Co. v. Valsecchi

Citation435 So.2d 290
Decision Date28 June 1983
Docket Number80-753 and 80-2216,80-744,80-740,Nos. 80-739,80-752,s. 80-739
PartiesPROPRIETORS INSURANCE COMPANY, Deland Aviation, Inc., O.R. Hunt, and Dean V. West, Appellants, v. John and Janet VALSECCHI, individually and as personal representatives of the Estate of Robert J. Valsecchi and Ann and Richard Scileppi, individually and as personal representatives of the Estate of Richard William Scileppi, and Caetano da S. Vital, administrator of the Estate of Lawrence J. Vital, Deceased, Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)

Page 290

435 So.2d 290
Hunt, and Dean V. West, Appellants,
John and Janet VALSECCHI, individually and as personal
representatives of the Estate of Robert J. Valsecchi and Ann
and Richard Scileppi, individually and as personal
representatives of the Estate of Richard William Scileppi,
and Caetano da S. Vital, administrator of the Estate of
Lawrence J. Vital, Deceased, Appellees.
Nos. 80-739, 80-740, 80-744, 80-752, 80-753 and 80-2216.
District Court of Appeal of Florida,
Third District.
June 28, 1983.
Rehearing Denied Aug. 15, 1983.

Page 291

Daniels & Hicks, Miami, Dolan, Fertig & Curtis, Fort Lauderdale, Kimbrell, Hamann, Jennings, Womack, Carlson & Kniskern and Arthur C. Miller, III and R. Owen Ricker, Jr., Miami, for appellants.

Podhurst, Orseck, Parks, Josefsberg, Eaton, Meadow & Olin, Rossman & Baumberger and Robert D. Peltz, Broad & Cassel, Miami, and F. Vernon Bennett, Wells, Gattis, Hallowes, Holbrook & Conway, Orlando, for appellees.


BASKIN, Judge.

The issues presented in this appeal arose in the context of wrongful death claims resulting from an airplane crash. The primary issue questions the choice of law to be applied to the determination of liability and damages under conflict-of-law tests. This court must decide whether the trial court should have applied Florida or North Carolina law in determining liability and awarding damages. We have carefully analyzed conflict-of-law rules pertaining to the selection of applicable law and conclude that the trial court erred in applying the law of North Carolina, the site of the crash, rather than the law of Florida, the state with the most significant relationships. Accordingly, we reverse.

Page 292

The crash of a Cessna airplane in North Carolina caused the deaths of Lawrence Vital, Robert Valsecchi and Richard Scileppi, all under 25 years of age. Prior to the fatal accident, Vital, Valsecchi and Scileppi were temporary residents of Florida, attending college as aeronautical students at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Florida. In November, 1976, Vital rented a Cessna 210C from DeLand Aviation, Inc., a Florida corporation. DeLand Aviation had leased the aircraft from Florida residents, Dean West and O.R. Hunt, who were principals of DeLand Aviation. Vital and his friends, Valsecchi and Scileppi, went to visit their parents for the Thanksgiving holidays. With Vital piloting the aircraft, the three men departed from DeLand, Florida. Valsecchi and Scileppi disembarked in New York, where their families resided, while Vital continued on to his family home in Massachusetts. After the holidays, the three men commenced the final leg of their return trip at the Wilmington, Delaware airport heading toward DeLand, Florida. Shortly after departure, the pilot experienced problems and soon lost radio contact. The radar image disappeared, and the plane crashed near the Oxford-Henderson, North Carolina airport, killing all three men on board.

The personal representatives of the three decedents filed for ancillary administration in Florida and, in addition, instituted lawsuits for damages in Florida. They alleged that Hunt, West and DeLand Aviation failed to maintain the aircraft's electrical system while the aircraft was hangared in Florida and that their negligence caused the crash. Acting as personal representatives of their sons' estates, the parents of Robert Valsecchi and Richard Scileppi filed wrongful death actions against Vital, Hunt, West, and DeLand. They sought damages predicated upon pilot negligence in operating the aircraft and upon the negligence of the airplane's owners and lessors, Hunt and West, in maintaining the aircraft. In addition, they asserted they were entitled to recover from DeLand Aviation, Inc., the lessee, based upon its negligent maintenance of the airplane and from Hunt, West, and DeLand, who were vicariously liable for the pilot's negligence under Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine.

The pilot's estate filed a cross-claim against Hunt, West, and DeLand founded upon their alleged negligent maintenance of the airplane. Hunt, West, DeLand, and Proprietors Insurance Company, their insurer, filed a cross-claim against the pilot's estate seeking indemnity or contribution for the pilot's alleged negligence . The jury found no negligence on the part of the pilot and awarded the estates of Valsecchi, Scileppi, and Vital $750,000 each from Hunt, West, and DeLand. The trial court limited the final judgments against Proprietors to its coverage of $75,000 per passenger and $100,000 for Vital. Contending in this appeal that no coverage existed for the pilot, Proprietors seeks to overturn the dismissal of its post-trial cross-claim concerning the $100,000 judgment for Vital.

Counsel for the estates of the pilot and both passengers contended at trial that North Carolina rather than Florida law governed. 1 The trial court agreed. 2 The court selected the law of North Carolina as appropriate for trial of some issues but found Florida's dangerous instrumentality and comparative negligence doctrines applied.

At trial, the Valsecchi and Scileppi personal representatives asked the court to direct verdicts in their favor on the ground that either the pilot or DeLand Aviation or both were liable for the deaths. The court, relying on North Carolina and Florida law,

Page 293

granted the motions and instructed the jury accordingly. The trial court ruled that if the jury found pilot error, appellants were vicariously liable to the passengers under Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine. 3 This question later became moot when the jury decided the pilot was not negligent. Then, applying North Carolina law pertaining to negligence, the trial court directed verdicts against Hunt, West, and DeLand. Thus, under the trial court's rulings, Hunt, West, and DeLand were responsible if the jury found that pilot error, negligent maintenance, or a combination of these factors caused the deaths.

In addition to the choice-of-law question, we are asked to review the propriety of the trial court's exclusion of testimony by DeLand Aviation employees under the Deadman's Statute, section 90.602, Florida Statutes (1979); the correctness of the directed verdicts establishing the liability of Hunt, West, and DeLand under the Florida dangerous instrumentality doctrine; and the trial court's dismissal of Proprietor's post-trial cross-claim denying coverage for Vital. We examine first the question of which law to apply.

Initially, the rule of lex loci delicti, or law of the place of the wrong, provided a simple and uniform formula for solving choice-of-law questions. Modern commentators, disenchanted with the application of the wooden lex loci rule to the complex problems of current litigation, have severely criticized the doctrine. See, e.g., Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971); G. Stumberg, Conflict of Laws 199-212 (3d ed. 1963); Cavers, A Critique of the Choice-of-Law Problem, 47 Harv.L.Rev. 173 (1933); Cheatham & Reese, Choice of the Applicable Law, 52 Colum.L.Rev. 959 (1952); Currie in Comments on Babcock v. Jackson, A Recent Development in Conflict of Laws, 63 Colum.L.Rev. 1212, 1233 (1963); A. Ehrenzweig, The "Most Significant Relationship" in the Conflicts Law of Torts, 28 Law & Contemp.Prob. 700 (1963); Harper, Policy Bases of the Conflict of Laws: Reflections on Rereading Professor Lorenzen's Essays, 56 Yale L.J. 1155 (1947); Morris, The Proper Law of a Tort, 64 Harv.L.Rev. 881 (1951); Reese in Comments on Babcock v. Jackson, 63 Colum.L.Rev. 1212, 1251 (1963); Traynor, Is This Conflict Really Necessary?, 27 Texas L.Rev. 657 (1959); and authorities cited in 46 Cornell L.Q. 637, 640, n. 20 (1961) and 62 Mich.L.Rev. 1358, n. 3 (1964). In an attempt to avoid the often harsh result of the lex loci rule, see Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1, 203 A.2d 796, 802, n. 11 (1964), conflicts-of-law theorists proposed new approaches.

In recognition of the jurisprudential departure from the now discredited conceptual underpinnings of sovereign supremacy and vested rights embodied in the lex loci delicti rule, Comment, Conflict of Laws--Torts: Significant Relationships v. Lex Loci Delicti--Florida Enters the Modern Era, 33 U.Fla.L.Rev. 436 (1981), the Restatement (Second) promulgated guidelines to aid in the selection of the proper law through analysis of significant contacts . Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, §§ 6 and 145 (1971). 4

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Another modern choice-of-law approach is the "government interest analysis" theory alluded to by the dissent. This theory focuses on the interest of the state involved rather than on the individual. See Cavers, The Choice of Law Process (1965); B. Currie, Selected Essays on the Conflicts of Law, 189 (1963) (originally published in 26 U.Chi.L.Rev. 9 (1959); E. Scoles and P. Hay, Conflict of Laws, §§ 17.11-17.17 (1982); 33 U.Fla.L.Rev. 436, supra. Cases applying a Restatement (Second) approach generally do not employ an "interest analysis" test.

The significant relationships test of the Second Restatement, adopted in Bishop v. Florida Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999 (Fla.1980) and adhered to in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Olsen, 406 So.2d 1109 (Fla.1981), is clearly the approved approach to conflict of laws issues in Florida. See Harris v. Berkowitz, 433 So.2d 613 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983). The dissent's reliance upon decisions applying interest analysis concepts is misguided because it disregards the separate nature of current analytical tools and thus endorses a case-by-case test dependent upon the attitudes of individual judges rather than upon the objective standards of existing law. In our view, this path leads to chaos.

Viewing the facts under a Restatement (Second) analysis, we are compelled to recognize the applicability of Florida law to the...

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