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Jett v. Coletta

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


September 22, 2003

CHRISTA A. JETT, A MINOR BY HER G/A/L STEVEN JETT, AND STEVEN JETT AND JANALYNN JETT, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DOMINIC COLETTA JR., M.D. AND CAPE EMERGENCY PHYSICIANS, P.A., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on the issue of choice of law as to damages in this medical malpractice action. Specifically, Defendants argue that Idaho law, rather than New Jersey law, should apply to this case. We disagree, and deny Defendants' Motion.

I. BACKGROUND

This dispute centers on medical treatment that Plaintiff, Christa A. Jett, ("Plaintiff") received from Defendants from June 22, 2000 to June 26, 2000, in Wildwood, New Jersey. Plaintiff argues that the severe neurological injuries she currently suffers were a result of Defendants' negligence.

Plaintiff is an Idaho resident and at the time of her May 24, 2002 deposition, had lived with her family in Green Leaf, Idaho for eleven years. All of the individual defendants in this matter reside and/or work in New Jersey. All of the corporate defendants in this matter have their principal places of business in New Jersey. All of the defendants are insured by Princeton Insurance Company, MIIX, or Health Care Insurance Company, all of which are located in New Jersey, and none of which are authorized to do business in Idaho.

On June 5, 2000, Plaintiff, then sixteen years old, flew to the New Jersey Shore to spend the summer with her grandmother, Cheronne Jett, a resident of Wildwood, New Jersey. Shortly after arriving in New Jersey, Plaintiff obtained a summer job at a concession stand in Wildwood.

This was Plaintiff's second summer spent in Wildwood with her grandmother. During the summer of 1998, Plaintiff also lived with her grandmother and worked as a waitress at the Rio Motel Coffee Shop in Wildwood. Plaintiff always expected to return to Idaho when school resumed. But for her injury, Plaintiff would have returned to Idaho in late August.

On June 22, 2000, Plaintiff sought treatment from Defendants for intense, persistent back pain and associated symptoms. Defendants treated Plaintiff for five days, at which point Plaintiff was helicoptered to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for an emergent MRI and treatment. Plaintiff suffered from Ewing's Sarcoma, and her MRI revealed a spinal tumor which required surgical decompression and resection.

Because of the tumor, Plaintiff currently suffers from spastic paraparesis in her lower body, an inability to ambulate independently, and other problems. Plaintiff contends that had Defendants properly diagnosed and treated her, these injuries could have been avoided. Plaintiff seeks compensation for Defendants' alleged negligence.

Defendants' current summary judgment motion requests that we apply Idaho law to Plaintiff's claims on the issue of damages. The relevant Idaho statute would limit Plaintiff's potential recovery of non-economic damages to $400,000. Idaho Code § 6-1603 (Michie, 1998). Plaintiffs contend that New Jersey malpractice law, which contains no cap on non-economic damages, should be applied. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:53A-1 (2003), and N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:15-5.1 (2003). We agree with the Plaintiff and deny Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) a court may grant summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." The non-moving party may not simply rest on its pleadings to oppose a summary judgment motion but must affirmatively come forward with admissible evidence establishing a genuine issue of fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. American Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986). The role of the court is not to "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

The substantive law governing the dispute will determine which facts are material, and only disputes over those facts "that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. at 248. Where the moving party has carried its initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A genuine issue for trial does not exist "unless the party opposing the motion can adduce evidence which, when considered in light of that party's burden of proof at trial, could be the basis for a jury finding in that party's favor." J.E. Mamiye & Sons, Inc. v. Fidelity Bank, 813 F.2d 610, 618 (3d Cir. 1987)(Becker, J., concurring).

B. Choice of Law: the Government Interest Test

As a federal court sitting in diversity in the State of New Jersey, we must apply New Jersey's choice of law rules. Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfr., 313 U.S. 487 (1941). Where, as here, there is an actual conflict between the applicable laws of two states, New Jersey utilizes a governmental interest test. The governmental interest test requires that we first identify the policies underlying the laws of each interested jurisdiction, and then consider the contacts that each jurisdiction has with the parties. The determinative law is that of the state with the greatest interest in governing the particular issues. Henry v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 508 F.2d 28, 30 (3d Cir. 1975).

There is a true conflict of law in this matter between New Jersey and Idaho. Idaho imposes a maximum of $400,000 on any non-economic damages recovered in actions for personal injury *fn1 . Idaho Code § 6-1603 (Michie, 1998). New Jersey law imposes no maximum on non-economic damages. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:53A-1 (2003), and N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:15-5.1 (2003).

Therefore, we must evaluate which state has a stronger interest in having its laws applied. In the present case, we find that New Jersey, not Idaho, has the greater interest in having its laws applied.

1. Evaluating the Policies Underlying New Jersey and Idaho Damage Recovery Laws

The policies underlying New Jersey's damage recovery laws would be served by application in this case, while Idaho's policies would not. New Jersey has an interest in: (1) deterring negligent conduct in the medical profession and (2) ensuring that visitors to the state receive full compensation for their injuries. Idaho seeks predominantly to limit the liability for malpractice insurance premiums of its medical practitioners through its damage recovery cap, a concern which is irrelevant in the present circumstances.

First, in New Jersey, the interest of deterrence has long been recognized as an important factor in choice of law decisions in tort actions. Gantes v. Kason Corp., 697 A.2d 106, 111 (N.J. 1996). See also Mueller v. Parke Davis, 599 A.2d 950, 953 (App. Div. 1991) (explaining that New Jersey has an interest in assuring that its domiciliaries correctly perform their duties and obligations) and Clawans v. United States, 75 F.Supp. 2d 368 (D.N.J. 1999) (holding that New Jersey non-economic damage rule applies over Maryland to deter negligent conduct in New Jersey). In the present case, New Jersey has a strong interest in promoting the competence of its medical practitioners. Applying New Jersey's non-economic damage rule to the parties advances that interest.

Additionally, New Jersey has an interest in protecting visitors within its borders. In Amoroso v. Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital, this Court noted that, "`every state has an interest not only in the welfare of its own citizens, but also in the welfare of non-citizens who are temporarily in the state for a lawful purpose, particularly where that presence is non-fortuitous *fn2 .'" 901 F.Supp. 905, 911 (D.N.J. 1995) citing Moye v. Palma, 622 A.2d 935 (App. Div. 1993); Blakesley v. Wolford, 789 F.2d 236 (3d Cir. 1986). Although Plaintiff is not a resident of New Jersey, she lived with her grandmother and worked directly in support of the tourism industry on the boardwalk at Wildwood. New Jersey has a strong interest in protecting such individuals, ensuring that those who travel to, and work in, New Jersey receive its legal protection.

Equally important to New Jersey's interest in having its law applied to this case is Idaho's comparative lack of interest. As Defendants note:

The Idaho Legislature, in providing for a limited [non-economic] damage recovery under § 6-1603, was expressing its interest in limiting excessive damage awards. The legislative history behind § 6-1603 reveals that the statute was passed as part of a larger legislative package aimed at addressing concerns that large civil jury verdicts were driving up the cost of liability insurance. Defs. Summ. J. Brief, 5.

The Idaho Supreme Court, in Kirkland v. Blaine County, noted that § 6-1603 reformed "the liability insurance business so Idaho policyholders would have more control over the prices and conditions of liability insurance." 4 P.3d 1115, 1121 (Idaho 2000). Defendants illogically argue that this interest supports the application of Idaho law. In fact the opposite is true. Idaho's interest is in limiting recoveries for non-economic damages to keep down insurance premiums in Idaho. It has no interest in controlling liability insurance premiums in New Jersey for New Jersey defendants.

Consequently, we find that the policies underlying New Jersey's damage recovery law apply strongly to the present case, while the policies underlying the Idaho damage recovery law do not.

2. Evaluating New Jersey and Idaho Contacts with the Parties

We also find, moving to the second prong of the government interest test, that New Jersey has more substantial contacts with the parties in the present action than does Idaho. New Jersey is the state in which all defendants either work, live or do business, as well as the site of the injury and the treatment in question. Idaho can claim Plaintiff as a resident, and the effects of the injuries will be felt there, but its contacts go no further.

Though New Jersey courts no longer strictly follow the lex loci delecti rule in tort cases, the place of the injury is still an important factor to consider in determining what state has the greatest interest in a case. See Pfau v. Trent Aluminum Co., 263 A.2d 129, 137 (N.J. 1970), Mowrey v. Duriron Co., Inc., 616 A.2d 1300, 1305 (App. Div. 1992). Accordingly, the fact that Plaintiff's injury occurred entirely in New Jersey and was allegedly inflicted by New Jersey residents or employees is of significant import. Therefore, on both a qualitative and quantitative scale, Idaho's contacts to the parties in this matter are inferior to those of New Jersey.

III. CONCLUSION

The government interest choice of law test resolves quite clearly in favor of New Jersey. New Jersey has a much greater incentive than Idaho to apply its law to the present matter, and it also has a much stronger relationship to the parties. Therefore, Defendants' summary judgment motion to apply Idaho law to this case is DENIED.

An appropriate order will be entered on the date herewith.

JOSEPH E. IRENAS, S.U.S.D.J.


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