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Pfau v. Trent Aluminum Co.

Decided: July 3, 1969.

STEVEN PFAU, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
TRENT ALUMINUM COMPANY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Sullivan, Foley and Lewis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Foley, J.A.D.

Foley

With our leave defendants appeal from an interlocutory order of the Law Division by which the fourth separate defense set forth in defendants' answer was stricken. The precise question presented is whether, under the "grouping of contacts" or "center of gravity" approach adopted in this State by Mellk v. Sarahson , 49 N.J. 226 (1967), the law of Iowa which precludes an action, based upon ordinary negligence, by a guest in an automobile against his host, applies, or whether the law of New Jersey, which permits such a recovery, is applicable.

Plaintiff Steven Pfau was injured while riding as a guest passenger in a car driven by defendant Bruce Trent and owned by defendant Trent Aluminum Company. The accident occurred in Iowa on April 22, 1966 when the Trent car, while rounding a curve, crossed over the center line of a roadway and collided with a vehicle proceeding in the opposite direction.

Plaintiff, a domiciliary of Connecticut, was a student at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. Defendant Bruce Trent, a New Jersey domiciliary, was also a student at that college. Both lived in college dormitories in Iowa. Trent Aluminum

Company is a New Jersey corporation which is owned by Bruce Trent's father. The occupants of the oncoming car, Joseph Davis, his wife and child, were Iowa residents and domiciliaries, and they all were seriously injured in the accident.

It was conceded on the oral argument that the Davis claims have been settled by defendants' insurance carrier, a New Jersey corporation, and that such claimants have no further interest in the matter. The vehicle driven by Trent was licensed and insured in New Jersey.

Pfau and Trent first met as students at Parsons College. Several days prior to April 22, 1966 Trent agreed to take Pfau with him on a trip to Columbia, Missouri. The boys were to stay over in Missouri and return to college in Iowa at the conclusion of the weekend. Pfau and Trent left Fairfield, Iowa, in the early evening of April 22, 1966. The accident occurred about one hour later.

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. Mellk v. Sarahson, supra , at page 228. However, in that case the court went on to say that 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.

Following Babcock v. Jackson , 12 N.Y. 2 d 473, 240 N.Y.S. 2 d 743, 191 N.E. 2 d 279, 95 A.L.R. 2 d 1 (Ct. App. 1963), the Mellk court adopted the grouping of contacts or center of gravity principle and concluded that New Jersey had the paramount interest in fixing the rights and liabilities arising from the host-guest relationship and that the foreign state in which the accident occurred had no real interest in having its guest statute applied, pointing out, among other things, that both plaintiff and defendant were residents of New Jersey and that the host-guest relationship was formed and was to end here. 49 N.J. , at page 234.

In Babcock the court, in refusing to apply an Ontario guest statute and holding that the concern of New York was unquestionably

the greater and more direct, the interest of Ontario being at ...


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