Court of Appeals Applies Both New York Law and Ontario Law to Fatal Bus Crash

In Edwards v. Erie Coach Lines Company, 131, NYLJ 1202499068316 (Decided June 30, 2011), New York States highest court was called upon to answer a choice-of-law question regarding a motor vehicle accident wherein a charter bus carrying members of an Ontario women’s hockey team plowed into the rear-end of a tractor-trailer parked on the shoulder of the highway near Geneseo, New York on January 19, 2005. Four bus passengers and the trailer’s driver died; several bus passengers were seriously hurt. The charter bus’s driver, his employer, and the company that leased the bus are Ontario domiciliaries, as are (or were) all the injured and deceased passengers. The tractor-trailer driver was a Pennsylvania domiciliary, as are his employer and the companies that hired the trailer. The injured passengers and the representatives of those who died filed multiple wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits in Supreme Court. The choice-of-law issue in these split-domicile lawsuits is highly significant because Ontario caps noneconomic damages where negligence causes catastrophic personal injury, while New York does not cap such damages for pain and suffering a No-Fault accident case involving serious injury. Specifically, the Supreme Court of Canada had capped noneconomic damages at CDN $100,000 in 1978 dollars, which was then equivalent to US $310,000. The key prior precedent was established in the case of Neumeier v. Kuehner (31 NY2d 121 [1972]). Neumeier set up a three-rule framework for resolving choice of law in conflicts settings. The Court of Appeals determined that New York law (no cap) applied to the Pennsylvania domiciliaries (charter bus defendants), and the Ontario (cap) law applied to the Ontario domiciliaries (tractor-trailer defendants). The court reasoned that the Ontario cap controls any award for damages for pain and suffering against the bus defendants because they share an Ontario domicile with plaintiffs. But as to the Pennsylvania defendants, there was no cause to contemplate a jurisdiction other than New York, the place where the conduct causing injuries and the injuries themselves occurred. The trailer defendants … had no contacts whatsoever with Ontario other than the happenstance that plaintiffs and the bus defendants were domiciled there. Going beyond this case, perhaps the most significant aspect of the Edwards decision is the Court of Appeals stated that the correct way to conduct a choice-of-law analysis is to consider each plaintiff vis–vis each defendant. This method of analysis was directly faulted by the dissent written by Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, joined by Chief Judge Robert D. Lippman. The dissent would have analyzed the matter under a single Neumeier analysis and hold that because plaintiffs and defendants are differently domiciled, the law of the site of the torthere New York should apply as set forth in the third Neumeier rule to further the goal of predictability and uniformity. The dissent noted that New York is the only State with which all parties have purposefully associated themselves and availed themselves of New York highways for profit and tourism, applying New York law is entirely appropriate in this matter. The dissent also noted that the case illustrates the potential for grossly inequitable results because during a jury trial on liability, defendants entered into a stipulation whereby they agreed that they are 100 percent jointly and severally liable to plaintiffs and further agreed to apportion such liability between themselves at 90 percent to the bus defendants and the remaining 10 percent to the tractor-trailer defendants. The majority allows for a situation whereby the tractor-trailer defendants may end up paying more than the bus defendants because of the cap applied on noneconomic tort awards by Ontario”a patently absurd result”.

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