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Malik v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 17, 2014

RAHEEL MALIK, Plaintiff,

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For Mr. ZAFAR MALIK, Consol Plaintiff: SAIF MUSVI AGHA, LEAD ATTORNEY, Agha & Agha, LLP, Edison, NJ.



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William H. Walls, United States Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Raheel Malik alleges that Defendant Cooper Tire designed and/or manufactured a defective tire, which blew out on an Illinois highway, causing an accident that left Plaintiff a paraplegic. Plaintiff now moves for partial summary judgment to prevent Defendant from raising the " seatbelt defense" at trial, that Plaintiff's failure to wear an available safety belt at the time of the crash should limit his recovery.

Plaintiff argues that this Court should apply Illinois law, which Plaintiff contends

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would exclude evidence of his nonuse of the belt. Plaintiff also asks the Court to bar Defendant's experts from testifying that Plaintiff's injuries would have been less severe had he worn the belt. Plaintiff does not dispute that New Jersey law would permit this evidence. Defendant counters that New Jersey law should apply because New Jersey has the more significant interest in the litigation, as Plaintiff's domicile is in New Jersey, Plaintiff brought the suit in a New Jersey court under New Jersey law, and Illinois has no contacts with the litigation apart from being the situs of the accident. Defendant further asserts that Plaintiff has waived the right to have Illinois law apply by failing to mention it in his pleadings and raising it only at this stage, after Defendant has hired experts to evaluate the effect of seatbelt nonuse on Plaintiff's injuries.

Plaintiff's motion, decided without oral argument under Fed.R.Civ.P. 78, is denied. Finding New Jersey to have the more significant interest in the litigation, the Court declines to apply Illinois's bar on seatbelt evidence. The Court need not reach Defendant's waiver argument.

Factual and Procedural Background

On August 25, 2009, Plaintiff was a backseat passenger in a car traveling along Interstate 64 in the state of Illinois, heading for New Jersey. Pl.'s SMF ¶ ¶ 6-7. There was a safety belt available where he was seated. Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s SMF ¶ 13. Plaintiff was not wearing it. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 23. At the time, the Illinois vehicular code did not require backseat passengers to use their safety belts. Ill. Vehicle Code 625 ILCS 5/12-603.1(a) (2010). At around 6:14pm, the tread on the left rear tire delaminated. Pl.'s SMF ¶ ¶ 6, 27; Def.'s SMF ¶ 6. The car veered off the highway and rolled over. Def.'s SMF ¶ 11. Plaintiff was ejected and seriously injured. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 11. No other vehicle was involved in the crash. Id. ¶ 6.

At the time of the accident, Plaintiff had completed four semesters of medical school in the Caribbean and had spent the past semester studying medicine in Illinois. Pl.'s Ex. C 53. Plaintiff had planned to take a medical licensing exam and move to wherever he was matched for medical rotations, but had not yet taken the exam or matched at the time of the accident. Id. 59-62. On this particular trip, Plaintiff was " coming back home to New Jersey," id. 51:18-25, where his parents owned a home. Pl.'s Interrog. Resp. 2.

Defendant Cooper Tire is a Delaware corporation. Compl. ¶ 2, Answer ¶ 2. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant " is in the business of manufacturing, designing, testing, formulating, selling, marketing, advertising and/or distributing tires in New Jersey and other states around the country," Compl. ¶ 2, though Defendant disputes the wording. Answer ¶ 2. Defendant manufactured the tire in question in Mississippi. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 25. Although the driver did not know exactly which store sold him the tires, he testified that he bought them in Virginia. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 28, Def.'s Ex. P 25:22-26:02.

Plaintiff currently resides in New Jersey, Pl.'s Interrog. Resp. 2, and filed this action against Defendant in New Jersey Superior Court, asserting claims under New Jersey statutes governing strict liability in tort and punitive damages, as well as common-law breach of express warranty.[1] Compl. 3-5. Defendant removed the

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action to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction. ECF No. 1. Nowhere in Plaintiff's complaint does he allege that Illinois law should apply. Plaintiff did, however, send a letter to the Court arguing that seatbelt evidence should be barred from trial under applicable Illinois law, Pl.'s Letter of Feb. 7, 2012 2, ECF No. 26, in response to a Magistrate Judge's order that each party summarize its factual and legal positions. Order of Oct. 28, 2011, ECF No. 20.

Plaintiff now moves for partial summary judgment to prevent Defendant from raising Plaintiff's seatbelt nonuse at trial. He cites several Illinois cases that barred a defendant from introducing this evidence to prove comparative negligence, to contest the extent of a plaintiff's damages, or even to impeach a witness. Pl.'s Br. 9-12, ECF No. 57. Plaintiff argues that Illinois law should apply because " the nexus of the parties' relationship is clearly in Illinois, where [Plaintiff] lived, where he encountered [Defendant's] tire, where the defective tire failed, and where [Plaintiff] suffered catastrophic injuries." Pl.'s Reply Br. 13, ECF No. 64.

Defendant responds that " [t]here is no credible argument Illinois intended this law to apply extraterritorially to a New Jersey suit brought by a New Jersey citizen against a non-Illinois defendant simply because an accident happened during the Illinois leg of a multi-state trip that was destined for New Jersey." Def.'s Opp'n 4, ECF No. 61. Defendant classifies the place of the accident as " fortuitous," believing that New Jersey's relationship to the occurrence and the parties is more significant because the seatbelt defense " is expressly an issue of damages arising from New Jersey's strong interest in applying its comparative fault rules in cases involving New Jersey citizens and in having a jury consider all relevant factors in arriving at an appropriate damages awards [sic]." Id. Defendant sees no actual conflict in the laws of Illinois and New Jersey, id. 7-11, and asserts that, in any case, Plaintiff waived the application of Illinois law by not pleading it in his complaint. Id. 5.


I. Standard on Summary Judgment

Summary judgment as to a claim or defense is appropriate where " the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). As to the seatbelt defense at issue, the parties do not dispute the material facts, merely the relevant law.

II. Standard as to Choice of Law

A federal court with diversity jurisdiction must apply the choice of law principles of the forum state. Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496-97, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941). In New Jersey, the relevant test is the " most significant relationship" test of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, which has two steps: first, checking for an " actual conflict," and second, determining which state has the " most significant relationship" to the litigation. P.V. v. Camp Jaycee, 197 N.J. 132, 142-44, 962 A.2d 453 (2008). There is a presumption that the law of the situs state applies, which can be overcome " when another state has more significant interest and the policies of the situs state will not be frustrated

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by the application of foreign law." Lebegern v. Forman, 471 F.3d 424, 428 ...

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