Florida Law v. South Carolina Law: What law should be applied to this accident?

Posted on June 25, 2017

In Ward v. Morlock, No. 5D16-1641, 2017 WL (Fla. 5th DCA 2017), the courts look to determine whether Florida’s dangerous instrumentality law should apply to a case arising out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred in South Carolina where the two parties to the litigation are Florida residents.  The facts of the case are, while Appellee, Keith Morlock and his family were on vacation in South Carolina with his brother-in-law, Paul Behrens, and his family, Behrens’ son needed a ride to the airport, and Behrens asked Appellee if he could borrow his vehicle.  Appellee agreed and while in route to the airport, Behrens rear-ended the car that Appellant, Lia Ward, was driving at an intersection in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. 

This negligence suit was filed solely against Appellee, who sought damages under Florida’s dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which provides that an owner of a motor vehicle is generally liable for injuries that are caused by the vehicles negligent operation. Appellee answered the complaint, conducted discovery, and then moved for final summary judgment. Appellee stated that South Carolina law should govern instead of Florida law, and under South Carolina, the mere ownership of a vehicle is insufficient to establish the owner’s liability for the negligence of the driver. Appellee argues that since there was no evidence showing that he negligently lent his vehicle to his brother-in-law, or that he would otherwise be liable to Appellant under South Carolina’s “Family Purpose Doctrine”, final summary judgment was proper. The trial court determined that South Carolina law would be applied here and then proceeded to enter into final summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

The lex loci delicti rule has been historically used by Florida courts to determine conflict of law cases which uses the substantive law of the state where the injury occurred applicable to personal injury actions. Although, in 1980, the Florida Supreme Court adopted the “significant relationships test” which it described as the “more flexible, modern approach” in determining this issue.

The cited sections of the Restatement provide:

§ 145 The General Principle.

1. The rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in § 6.

2.  Contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include:

(a) the place where the injury occurred,

(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,

(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and

(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance to the particular issue.

§ 146 Personal Injuries.

In an action for a personal injury, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied.

Section 6(2) of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws sets forth the following choice of law principles in assessing which state law is to be applied:

(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant policies of the other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of the law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

The courts at the case at bar recognize that the “significant relationships test does not require the court to evaluate the receded contracts with a view to determine which state’s local law should be applied to all  issues in the case as a whole; rather, the contracts must be evaluated with respect to the particular issue under consideration.” Under section 145(2) it is determined that two of the four contacts, the place where both the injury and the conduct causing the injury occurred, favor South Carolina. The determination of these contacts is not based quantitatively, but rather qualitatively, according to their relative impact to the particular issue.

“Comment a. to section 145 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws recognizes that sections 156–174 of the Restatement focus on specific issues in tort, providing that the best way to bring more precision into the conflict of laws arena is by attempting to provide special rules for particular issues in tort. On the precise issue of vicarious liability, comment a. to section 174 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws directs the forum court to apply “the local law of the state which has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties with respect to the issue of vicarious liability” in deciding “whether one person is liable for the tort of another.” See also Cates v. Creamer, 431 F.3d 456, 463 (5th Cir. 2005). Comment a. to section 174 further provides that the state whose vicarious liability law is to be applied should be selected in accordance with the choice-of-law principles stated in section 6 and that these principles require the forum court to consider: “(1) whether the relationship between the defendant and the other person makes the imposition of vicarious liability reasonable and (2) whether there is a reasonable relationship between the defendant and the state whose local law is to be applied.””

To begin with, Appellee is a Florida resident and the vehicle that his brother-in-law operated in an allegedly negligent manner, was both registered and insured in Florida. This creates a “reasonable relationship” between the Appellee and Florida. Secondly, Appellant is a Florida resident, so to apply Florida law to determine vicarious liability would be consistent with the policy behind the dangerous instrumentality doctrine. Third, Behrens, who is not a named party to the litigation, is a resident of Pennsylvania. Florida retains the best interest in protecting its residents and holding those residents responsible for their actions as applicable to the law. The parties to this litigation did not have any expectation that the law of South Carolina would apply rather than Florida law. Therefore, the courts find no issue in applying Florida’s dangerous instrumentality law to a motor vehicle accident where both parties are licensed, registered, and insured in Florida and both parties to the litigation reside in Florida.

NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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