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Veazey v. Doremus

Decided: July 10, 1986.

GEORGE H. VEAZEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CHARLES D. DOREMUS AND DOROTHY J. VEAZEY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Pollock, Handler, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J.

Pollock

[103 NJ Page 245] This appeal presents a choice-of-law question relating to the issue of the capacity of one spouse to sue another for personal injuries arising out of the other spouse's negligent operation of an automobile. The question arises because Florida, the spouses' state of domicile, recognizes interspousal immunity, but New Jersey, the forum and the place where the accident occurred, has abolished that immunity.

-I-

While riding as a passenger in a car driven by his wife, George Veazey was injured in New Jersey when their car collided with a car owned and operated by Charles Doremus, a New Jersey resident. Mr. and Mrs. Veazey were en route to their home in Florida after visiting friends in New Jersey. At the time of the accident, the Veazeys, who previously had lived in New Jersey for over 40 years, had been residing in Florida for approximately three years. As a result of the accident, Mr. Veazey instituted a personal injury action in New Jersey against his wife and Mr. Doremus.

Mrs. Veazey filed a motion for summary judgment based on Florida's doctrine of interspousal immunity. Because New Jersey has abandoned interspousal immunity in personal injury actions, the motion presented a choice-of-law question. The Law Division denied Mrs. Veazey's motion, concluding "that New Jersey's interest in the case predominates."

In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the law of the state where the spouses reside "must be applied both as to immunity and the right of a co-defendant to recover contribution from the immune spouse." Accordingly, the Appellate Division granted Mrs. Veazey's motion for summary judgment and remanded the case for trial. We denied Mr. Veazey's motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal. R. 2:2-2. As a result, the action was dismissed as to Mrs. Veazey, but the trial proceeded as to Mr. Doremus.

At trial, the testimony disclosed that the accident occurred at a jughandle intersection of Route 10 and Ridgedale Avenue in Hanover Township. That intersection is controlled by a traffic light, and Mr. and Mrs. Veazey, who were traveling on Route 10, testified that the light was green for them. Mr. Doremus, however, testified that he had been stopped at a red light and followed two cars through the intersection after the light turned green for traffic heading south on Ridgedale Avenue. Mr. Doremus's version was confirmed not only by his passenger,

but also by another independent witness who testified that Mrs. Veazey ran a red light and who quoted her as saying at the scene of the accident, "I saw the red light but could not stop." The jury found that Mr. Doremus was negligent because he had not looked to his left or right as he proceeded through the intersection, but found further that his negligence was not a proximate cause of the accident. Thus, a judgment of no cause for action was entered in favor of Mr. Doremus, thereby rendering moot his claim for contribution. The Appellate Division affirmed, and we granted certification, 102 N.J. 341 (1985).

Our grant of certification included a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain the jury's verdict. We now realize, after a meticulous canvassing of the full record, that there is no basis for that challenge, and we therefore vacate certification on that issue as having been improvidently granted. The issue that remains is whether New Jersey, as the state where the accident happened and the forum for the litigation, should apply its law or that of Florida in determining the capacity of Mr. Veazey to maintain the action against his wife.

-II-

In tort cases, New Jersey has rejected the rule for determining choice of law based on the place where the wrong occurred, sometimes described as lex loci delicti. E.g., Pfau v. Trent Aluminum Co., 55 N.J. 511, 514-15 (1970); Mellk v. Sarahson, 49 N.J. 226, 228-29 (1967). Although that rule had the virtue of certainty and predictability, its mechanical application often led to unjust results. Mellk v. Sarahson, supra, 49 N.J. at 228-29. Consequently, we have adopted the more flexible governmental-interest analysis in choice-of-law decisions. E.g., State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Estate ...


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