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Mellk v. Sarahson

Decided: April 24, 1967.

ARNOLD MELLK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HELEN SARAHSON, AND LANE SARAHSON, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.

Proctor

This is a personal injury negligence suit resulting from an automobile accident which occurred in Ohio. At the close of the trial the judge, concluding there was no issue for the jury, entered a judgment of dismissal. The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division, and prior to argument there we certified the matter to this Court on our own motion.

Plaintiff and defendant, both residents of Maplewood, New Jersey, decided in the late summer of 1963 to take a one-week motor trip to visit a mutual friend in Madison, Wisconsin. Defendant supplied the car, owned by his mother, and plaintiff contributed $25 to help cover the expenses of operation. After their visit the two young men left Madison on September 6, and on September 7, at about 3:00 A.M. on Route 52 near Cincinnati, Ohio, the accident

occurred when defendant's car struck the rear of a parked car. Plaintiff sued for the injuries he received. At trial he testified that he was sleeping when the accident happened. Shortly after the impact he looked out and observed that defendant's car had struck a car parked off the highway. Defendant testified that the car was parked on the highway at the curb, and that he had come around a bend in the road and had been unable to stop or swerve so as to avoid the accident.

Under Ohio law a host-driver is not liable to his guest for ordinary negligence.

"The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest, resulting from the operation of said motor vehicle, while such guest is being transported without payment therefor in or upon said motor vehicle, unless such injuries or death are caused by the willful or wanton misconduct of such operator, owner, or person responsible for the operation of said motor vehicle." Ohio Rev. Code ยง 4515.02.

The trial judge dismissed the suit holding: 1) because the accident occurred in Ohio, the guest statute of that state governed; 2) plaintiff was a guest as a matter of Ohio law; and 3) there was no evidence of willful or wanton misconduct by defendant. On this appeal the plaintiff does not challenge the third finding of the trial judge.

The primary question before us on this appeal is whether Ohio or New Jersey law sets the standard of care owed by defendant-driver to his guest. The traditional rule for determining choice of law in tort cases has been lex loci delicti, the law of the place where the wrong occurred. E.g., Marshall v. Geo. M. Brewster & Son, Inc., 37 N.J. 176, 180 (1962); Harber v. Graham, 105 N.J.L. 213, 214-215 (E. & A. 1928). This rule offers the advantages of certainty, uniformity and predictability. Daily v. Somberg, 28 N.J. 372, 380 (1958).

Recently there has been recognition by courts and commentators that the mechanical application of lex loci

delicti to all choice of law problems may work unjust results in a particular case. Where a foreign state has a real interest in having its law apply to the rights and liabilities of parties to an event which occurred within its borders, this Court has recognized that sound principles of comity often require the application of the foreign state's law to a suit brought in the courts of this State. See Daily v. Somberg, supra, 28 N.J., at p. 379. However, where a foreign state has no real interest in having its law applied to a particular right or liability of parties to an event which occurred within its borders, a mechanical application of a disability or immunity imposed by the lex loci delicti may work an unjust result having no relation to the purposes and policies behind the foreign law.

This Court has already recognized that the lex loci delicti should not be applied mechanically, but that courts should give attention to other factors which are relevant to the choice of law process. When an employee of a New York firm sued a co-employee for negligence arising out of an automobile accident which occurred in this State, we determined that New York had the paramount interest in the relationship of the parties and applied the New York law which barred tort suits by an employee against a co-employee for injuries suffered in the course of employment though such suits were then permitted in New Jersey. Stacy v. Greenberg, 9 N.J. 390, 397 (1952). Where a wife sued her husband for injuries received in an automobile accident in New York before the parties married, we applied our law of inter-spousal immunity and dismissed the claim though it was maintainable under New York law because we determined that New Jersey had the paramount interest in the marital relation. Koplik v. C.P. Trucking ...


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