The Middle District of Florida’s recent ruling in Schippers v. U.S. explains how courts decide which laws apply when a person from one state is injured in another.
Plaintiffs are the personal representatives of three individuals who died in a plane crash in Benavides, Texas as they were returning to their homes in Florida after hunting trip. Plaintiffs filed separate actions against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that negligence by Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers in Houston, Texas caused the plane crash. Considering various motions in each case, the issue before the Middle District of Florida was whether the law of Florida or that of Texas applies to the questions of liability and damages in each action.
As in many cases involving actions in one state that affect residents of another, the choice of law question here is one with great stakes. Florida tort law operates under a pure comparative negligence standard, by which a person who is injured partly due to his or her own negligence can hold another liable proportionately. Texas tort law, on the other hand, uses a quasi-contributory negligence standard, which provides that an injured party may not sue another for damages if the injured party is more than 50 percent at fault for the injury. Thus, were the decedents found more than 50 percent responsible for the plane accident, Plaintiffs could still recover damages in Florida, but not in Texas.
As an initial matter, the court ruled that because the alleged negligence took place in Texas – that is, FAA air traffic controllers stationed in Houston allegedly acted negligently in Texas – that state’s choice of law rules should be used in answering the larger question. As the court explained, Texas employs a “most significant relationship” test in determining which state’s laws apply to a given personal injury action. In other words “[t]he rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state which…has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties.” To make this determination, courts consider: (a) the place where the injury happened; (b) the place where the conduct causing the injury took place; (c) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties and; (d) the place where any relationship between the parties is centered. This determination must then be weighed against the competing interests of each state.
The court found that the balance of the considerations weighed in favor of applying Florida law because all of the decedents, their heirs and their personal representatives reside in Florida and because the state has “a significant interest in compensating its residents for wrongs committed against them.” On the other hand, the defendant is not a Texas resident – Plaintiffs sued the U.S., not any individual air traffic controllers – and therefore Texas retains little or no interest in applying its negligence laws.
Choice of law is one of a host of issues that should be considered by persons who are injured in one state and are considering filing a personal injury lawsuit in another. If you were recently injured in an accident and are interested in pursuing a claim, contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine today. Our negligence attorneys represent clients throughout South Florida, including in Boca Raton, Hollywood and Pompano Beach.
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