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Pfau v. Trent Aluminum Co.

Decided: March 17, 1970.

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



For reversal -- 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

[55 NJ Page 513] This appeal presents a conflict of laws problem regarding a host's liability to his guest for negligence arising out of an automobile accident. Plaintiff, a Connecticut domiciliary, was injured in Iowa while a passenger in an automobile driven by a New Jersey domiciliary and owned by a New Jersey corporation. Iowa has a guest statute which provides that a host-driver is not liable to his passenger-guest for ordinary negligence.*fn1 The defendants pleaded, inter alia, the Iowa guest statute as a defense. On plaintiff's motion, Judge Demos, in the Law Division, struck

this defense, holding that the New Jersey law requiring a host to use at least ordinary care for the safety of his guest was applicable. The Appellate Division ruled that the Iowa guest statute applied to the case and accordingly reversed and reinstated the defense. 106 N.J. Super. 324 (1969). Plaintiff petitioned this Court for certification. Since we were not confronted with a final judgment, we granted defendants' motion to dismiss, but allowed plaintiff 15 days to file a motion for leave to appeal an interlocutory order. Such a motion was filed and granted.

The facts pertinent to this appeal are undisputed. Plaintiff, Steven Pfau, a domiciliary of Connecticut, was a student at Parsons College in Iowa, and the defendant, Bruce Trent, a domiciliary of New Jersey, was a student at the same college. The boys met for the first time at Parsons.

Following the Easter vacation in 1966, the defendant, Bruce Trent, drove the automobile involved in the accident back to Iowa for his use at college. The automobile was registered in New Jersey in the name of the Trent Aluminum Company, a New Jersey corporation owned by Bruce's father. Bruce was using the car with the owner-corporation's consent. The vehicle was insured in New Jersey by a New Jersey carrier.

About a month after Bruce's return to college and several days before the accident, he agreed to drive the plaintiff to Columbia, Missouri, for a weekend visit. They never reached their destination. Shortly after leaving Parsons on April 22, 1966, and while still in Iowa, Bruce failed to negotiate a curve and the car he was operating collided with an oncoming vehicle driven by Joseph Davis. Mr. Davis and his wife and child, who were Iowa domiciliaries, were injured in the accident. Their claims have now been settled by defendants' insurance carrier. The sole question presented by this appeal is whether the Iowa guest statute is applicable to this action.

In Mellk v. Sarahson, 49 N.J. 226 (1967) this Court abandoned the old lex loci delicti rule for determining choice of law in tort cases, e.g., Harber v. Graham, 105 N.J.L. 213, 214-215

(E. & A. 1928), 61 A.L.R. 1232 and adopted the governmental interest analysis approach. We did so because we believed that the lex loci delicti doctrine worked unjust results in many cases and ignored the interests which jurisdictions other than that where the tort occurred may have in the resolution of the particular issues involved. Id. at 229. In Mellk, the plaintiff was injured while riding as a passenger in the defendant-driver's car when it struck a parked vehicle in Ohio. Plaintiff and defendant were both New Jersey domiciliaries and their guest-host relationship began in this state. When the accident happened, they were returning from a brief visit to the home of a mutual friend in Wisconsin. Defendant's automobile was insured and registered in New Jersey. In those circumstances we declined to apply the Ohio guest statute. The purposes discerned in the Ohio statute by that state's own courts were the prevention of collusive suits and the preclusion of suits by "ungrateful guests." Since both plaintiff and defendant were New Jersey domiciliaries and since the car was insured in New Jersey, we did not believe that Ohio had any interest in the application of its guest statute to the case. Instead, we applied New Jersey's strong declared policy of requiring a host to exercise at least ordinary care for the safety of his guest. Cohen v. Kaminetsky, 36 N.J. 276, 283 (1961).

Our decision in Mellk followed Babcock v. Jackson, 12 N.Y. 2d 473, 240 N.Y.S. 2d 743, 191 N.E. 2d 279 (1963) in which the New York Court of Appeals rejected the traditional choice of law rule which looked invariably to the place of the tort, and reached the same result as Mellk on similar facts. There, two New York residents began an automobile trip from that state to Ontario. The plaintiff, a guest in defendant's car, was injured when the defendant-driver struck a stone wall in Ontario. Although the Ontario statute barred any recovery by a guest-passenger against a host-driver, the court applied New York law which permitted the guest to sue his host. Babcock achieved widespread acclaim from legal scholars, e.g., Cavers, Cheatham, Currie,

Ehrenzweig, Leflar and Reese, "Comments on Babcock v. Jackson," 63 Colum. L. Rev. 1212 (1963), and New York has continued to apply the Babcock approach in subsequent decisions. See Dym v. Gordon, 16 N.Y. 2d 120, 262 N.Y.S. 2d 463, 209 N.E. 2d 792 (Ct. App. 1965); Macey v. Rozbicki, 18 N.Y. 2d 289, 274 N.Y.S. 2d 591, 221 N.E. 2d 380 (Ct. App. 1966); Tooker v. Lopez, 24 N.Y 2d 569, 301 N.Y.S. 2d 519, 249 N.E. 2d 394 (Ct. App. 1969). These post- Babcock decisions have indicated some of the difficulties which are inevitable when a court applies a new approach to various factual patterns. We are faced with the same problem in the present case, for defendants do not argue that New Jersey should return to lex loci delicti; they disagree, however, with the plaintiff over what state's law modern conflicts principles dictate should be applied.

In order to determine whether the Iowa guest statute should apply to this case, we must first examine its purposes as articulated by the Iowa courts. See Mellk v. Sarahson, supra, 49 N.J., at 230. These purposes are: "to cut down litigation arising from the commendable unselfish practice of sharing with others transportation in one's vehicle and protect the Good Samaritan from claims based on negligence by those invited to ride as a courtesy," Rainsbarger v. Shepherd, 254 Iowa 486, 492, 118 N.W. 2d 41, 44, 1 A.L.R. 3d 1074 (1962); to prevent ingratitude by guests, Knutson v. Lurie, 217 Iowa 192, 195, 251 N.W. 147, 149 (1933); to prevent suits by hitchhikers, Id.; "to prevent collusion suits by friends and relatives resulting in excessively high insurance rates," Hardwick v. Bublitz, 253 Iowa 49, 54, 111 N.W. 2d 309, 312 (1961).

The above policies expressed by the Iowa courts would not appear to be relevant to the present matter. This action will not increase litigation in the Iowa courts; no hitchhiker is involved; no Iowa insurer will be subjected to a "collusive suit" since the insurer is a New Jersey corporation; there is no "Good Samaritan" Iowa host-driver ...


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