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O''Connor v. Busch Gardens

Decided: April 24, 1992.

JANET O'CONNOR AND THOMAS O'CONNOR, HER HUSBAND, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
BUSCH GARDENS, ITS SERVANTS, AGENTS, OR EMPLOYEES, BUSCH ENTERTAINMENT CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Petrella, R.s. Cohen and Kestin. The opinion of the court was delivered by R.s. Cohen, J.A.D.

Cohen

Plaintiffs are New Jersey residents. They visited Busch Gardens, a Virginia amusement park owned by defendant Busch Entertainment Corp., a Delaware corporation (hereafter Busch Gardens). Plaintiff Janet O'Connor (hereafter plaintiff) was injured while attempting to negotiate an attraction called the "Twizzle Flop." Plaintiffs sued Busch Gardens first in Virginia, and then in New Jersey, voluntarily dismissing the Virginia action. They charged Busch Gardens with negligence. Busch Gardens denied negligence and alleged that plaintiff herself negligently caused her own injuries.

Defendant moved in the Law Division

for an order determining the "choice of law issue" such that the law of the State of Virginia applies to the trial of the within matter.

The Law Division Judge denied the motion. An order she signed*fn1 made the ruling that New Jersey law applies. We granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal, and now reverse.

We first point out, as we did in Johnson Matthey, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Mfrs.' Ass'n Ins. Co., 250 N.J. Super. 51, 65-66, 593 A.2d 367 (App.Div.1991), that conflict of laws principles do not require that all legal issues presented by a single case be decided under the law of a single state. Instead, choice of law decisions can and should be made on an issue-by-issue basis, and thus the law of different states can apply to different issues in the same case. See Independent Petrochem. Corp. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 674 F. Supp. 354, 356 (D.D.C.1987); Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 and § 145 cmt. d (1971).

Defendant's motion was for a declaration as to the choice of law to be applied "to the trial of the within matter." When such a motion is made, the Law Division should not give a general answer that applies across-the-board to every issue

that might arise. It should rule only as to issues appropriately identified by the moving party, or should not rule at all.

The one issue that the parties obviously had in mind was whether New Jersey's comparative negligence law or Virginia's common-law contributory negligence doctrine applied. We will deal with this case as though that were the only issue as to which a conflicts ruling was sought. Any other issues will have to await analysis under proper standards when they arise.

In tort cases, the traditional choice is the law of the place where the wrong occurred. Although that rule is simple and relatively certain, its rigidity has led to its widespread rejection and to adoption of the more flexible governmental interest analysis. See Pfau v. Trent Aluminum Co., 55 N.J. 511, 263 A.2d 129 (1970). In contract cases, the same considerations led to abandonment of the rigid choice-of-law rule that applied the law of the place where the contract was formed. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Estate of Simmons, 84 N.J. 28, 417 A.2d 488 (1980).

The governmental interest analysis was clearly explained in Veazey v. Doremus, 103 N.J. 244, 248, 510 A.2d 1187 (1986). The determinative law is that of the state with the greatest interest in governing the particular issue. A court first decides if there is a conflict between the law of the interested states on the issue. If there is, the next step is to identify the governmental policies underlying the law of each state, and how those policies are affected by each state's contacts to the litigation and to the parties. If a state's contacts are not related to the policies underlying its law, ...


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