Conflicts of Law in Personal Injury Lawsuits

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 What Are Conflicts of Law in Personal Injury Lawsuits?

“Conflicts of Law” refers to the fact that the laws of more than one state or both state and federal law, may seem to apply to a personal injury lawsuit. A conflict of law may arise because the parties have connections to more than one state, or the incident that gives rise to the lawsuit involves connections to more than one state. The issue then is one for the court in which the case is filed to decide. A true conflict of laws is where the outcome of a lawsuit depends on which law is applied.

The area of conflict of laws is technical and potentially complex. The average citizen usually does not give much thought to the question of how various state and federal laws and courts interact, but there are rules for that

The determination of which personal injury law to apply is usually made by a judge after the issue is briefed and argued by the lawyers for the parties. The court in which the case is filed must decide which law is most appropriate to resolve the action.

However, if a person is filing a personal injury lawsuit, it may be helpful to them to know whether their case may involve a conflict of laws.

In What Situations Does a Conflict of Laws Arise?

In every personal injury case, there are four issues that need to be addressed at the start of the action:

  • Jurisdiction: The first is the issue of jurisdiction. This is the question of which court is the appropriate court in which to file a lawsuit. There are rules regarding when it is appropriate for a court to hear a case. The issue of which court is the right court is referred to as a question of “jurisdiction.” The question of which court has jurisdiction is simply a question of which court has the legal authority to entertain the case and is the most appropriate one;
  • Foreign Judgments: The issue of foreign judgments deals with the rules by which a court in one jurisdiction can decide it has the authority to require compliance with the judgment, or ruling, of a court in another jurisdiction;
  • Choice of Law: Choice of law is the issue of which law should apply in a particular case.
  • Conflict of Laws: The issue of a conflict of laws involves the question of which substantive laws should be applied in such a case. These issues can arise in any private-law context, but they are especially prevalent in contract and tort law. The issue arises in cases in which the law of more than one jurisdiction could apply based on the facts of the case. If the law of more than one state could apply, the question is which law should apply.

Often, these issues are easily addressed. It may be clear which court has jurisdiction. For example, a car accident may have taken place in the state in which all the drivers live, so the courts of that state would be the courts that have jurisdiction, and the law of that state would apply to the case.

On occasion, however, more than one court may have jurisdiction. The two drivers in an accident may live in different states and the accident may have occurred in a third state. In this case, if the non-negligent driver seeks more than $75,000 in damages, they may be able to file their lawsuit in either a state court or in federal court. And it may not be clear which law applies. Should the law of the state in which the non-negligent driver lives apply? Or, should the law of the state in which the negligent driver lives apply? Or maybe the law of the state in which the accident occurred should apply.

There are two types of cases that can be filed in federal court. They are as follows:

  • Federal Question: Cases involving claims that a federal law has been violated, which are called ”federal question” cases, and
  • Diversity of Citizenship: Cases involving claims between citizens of different states and in which damages in excess of $75,000 are claimed. These are known as ”diversity of citizenship” cases.

The fact that a person can bring these types of lawsuits in federal court does not mean that they have to be brought in federal court. Again, a person may have the option of filing a lawsuit in either federal or state court. And even if a person files in a federal court, the federal court may apply the law of one of the states that is related to the case, e.g. the state in which a car accident took place.

Personal injury situations often involve interstate transactions. For example, in a strict products liability claim, the product that caused the injury may have been assembled in several different states, and may thus be subject to several different state safety standards.

A person wants to be sure to take note if their personal injury claim involves a situation with connections to more than one state or possibly to the federal government. A person should inform their attorney if they suspect that the law of more than one jurisdiction may apply to their case.

Which Laws Will a Court Apply?

If a court is faced with a legal dispute involving a conflict of laws, it generally has two choices to consider:

  • Law of the Forum: Courts may apply the laws of the forum, which would be the state where the claim is filed. This is usually done when the dispute involves issues of procedure, such as the deadline for filing a document. In a state court, the court would apply the law of civil procedure of the state. In a federal court, the court would apply the law of federal civil procedure;
  • Law of the Site of Transaction: A court may also apply the laws of the jurisdiction where the transaction or injury occurred. This is usually done when the lawsuit concerns a matter of substantive law as opposed to procedural law, such as whether the plaintiff contributed to their own injuries. But this is not always the case.

In California, for example, a California state court engages in a 3-step assessment as follows:

  • The party who wants to apply the law of a different state must identify that law and show that it is materially different from California law. If it turns out the laws do not differ, the court would apply California law;
  • If the laws of two states are materially different, the court determines what interest each state has in having its own law applied to the case. This type of analysis can become quite technical;
  • If the trial court determines the laws are different and that each of the states has a legitimate interest in having its law applied, the court chooses the state whose interests would be more harmed if it were not applied.

Other states may have different ways of addressing the problem, but many probably follow an assessment that is similar to that of California.

Some examples should help illustrate the issue of conflict of laws. In a car accident case in Virginia, the state in which the accident happened, a Virginia appellate court ruled that a Vriginia trial court should have applied New York contract law, because the vehicle involved had been rented in New York.

New York law imposes vicarious liability on a vehicle owner for injuries caused by permissive users. The rental company was the owner of the vehicle and the permissive user was the renter of the car. New York contract law made the rental company liable for the damages that would have to be paid to the non-negligent driver. The Virginia conflict of laws principle required that New York law apply, because the car was rented in that state.

In a lawsuit arising from an automobile accident in Florida involving drivers who both lived in other states, the court decided that the rights and liabilities of parties should be determined by the laws of the state in which the accident occurred, i.e., Florida, rather than the law of the states in which the drivers lived.

Thus, not only does it matter which laws are applied, but it may also matter in which state the suit is filed. There can also be a big difference between filing in a state court as opposed to a federal court. It is not always possible to file a lawsuit in federal court. Even if a person is legally allowed to file in federal court, the federal court may apply state law. It can get complicated and lawyers generally are needed to deal with the issue.

There are limitations on the kinds of cases that can be filed in a federal court. Again, these are decisions that require the expertise of a lawyer. However it is always best if a personal injury victim is informed of the possible outcomes of filing in one particular court or another.

Finally, it is important to note that the parties can sometimes choose the law that they want to apply in the event of a lawsuit. Choice of law clauses can be added to a contract. This clause, or provision, in the contract may specify which law should apply in the event of a dispute. While this may be less common in personal injury lawsuits, because contracts may not be involved, it can be important in real estate transactions, for example. In addition, contracts may include so-called “choice of forum” provisions which specify the court in which disputes would have to be filed.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Personal Injury Lawsuit Involving a Conflict of Laws?

If you are involved in a personal injury case, you should take notice of whether your case may involve a conflict of laws. For example, you want to know if the driver of the other car involved is a resident of another state. Of course, you cannot be expected to understand which laws may apply in your situation.

So, it is best if you contact an experienced personal injury lawyer for advice and share what you know with your lawyer. Your attorney can explain how applying a certain law or filing in a specific court will provide you with the greatest chance of success.

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