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Coons v. Lawlor

argued: August 20, 1986.

COONS, RICHARD C., APPELLANT
v.
LAWLOR, ROBERT P. APPELLEE



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civ. No. 85-3434

Author: Becker

Before: BECKER, MANSMANN, Circuit Judges and TEITELBAUM, District Judge*fn*

Opinion OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Richard Coons, an Indiana citizen, appeals from the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Robert Lawler, a Pennsylvania citizen, in a diversity action for damages arising out of one-car accident on a New Jersey highway. This appeal requires us to decide whether an owner can be a guest in his or her own automobile under the Indiana guest statute. Coons argues that the District Court erred in its interpretation of Indiana's guest statute when it held that, in the absence of evidence of wanton or wilful misconduct by the driver, the statute would bar Coons as an owner-passenger from recovering from Lawler, the negligent driver of Coon's car. In view of our construction of Indiana law, we reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for further proceedings.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The facts of this case are not in dispute. Lawler is a citizen of Pennsylvania and Coons is a citizen of Indiana who holds an Indiana driver's license, registers his car in Indiana, and insures his car with an Indiana insurance carrier. At approximately 6:00 a.m. on June 18, 1983, the two began a trip to the New Jersey seashore. Shortly after they left Lawler's Norristown, Pennsylvania home in Coon's car, Coons began to feel tired, and Lawler relieved him at the wheel. At approximately 6:35 a.m., Lawler fell asleep while driving in New Jersey, and the car struck a utility pole. As a result, Coons was injured and his car was damaged. To recover damages, he commenced this diversity action against Lawler in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Upon Lawler's motion, the district court granted summary judgment and dismissed the action. Looking to the conflicts law of the forum to decide what substantive law applied on the merits, see Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 85 L. Ed. 1477, 61 S. Ct. 1020 (1941), the district court applied the governmental interest analysis first adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Griffith v. United Air Lines, 416 Pa. 1, 203, 203 A.2d 796, A.2d 796 (1964). Pennsylvania had little interest in having its substantive laws applied to this case, held the district court, because "the purpose of the policy of allowing an injured party to recover damages is to allow injured Pennsylvanians to have a remedy. It cannot be inferred that the interest of the policy is to protect a person from Indiana such as plaintiff here." Slip op. at 6. Further, the court found that Coons was seeking the protection of "laws which would provide him a greater right [of recovery] than his own state provides for him." Id. at 7. Quoting Miller v. Gay, 323 Pa. Super. 466, 470 A.2d 1353, 1356 (1983), for the proposition that "inhabitants of the . . . should not be accorded rights not given them by their home states," the district court held that Indiana substantive law should control.

The Indiana guest statute, Ind. Code Ann. § 9-3-3-1, was changed in 1984, P.L. 68-1984, § 2. At the time of the accident here at issue, the statute read:

The owner, operator, or person responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle shall not be liable for loss or damage arising from injuries to or death of a guest, while being transported without payment therefor, in or upon such motor vehicle, resulting from the operation thereof, unless such injuries or death are caused by the wanton or wilful misconduct of such operator, owner or person responsible for the operation of such motor vehicle."*fn1

Because the courts of Indiana have had no occasion to decide whether an owner can be a guest in his own car for purposes of the earlier guest statute, the district court next attempted to predict how the highest court of Indiana would have decided the issue. The court first acknowledged the majority case law position from other states with guest statutes, which is that an owner cannot be a guest in his own car. The district court concluded that those cases construed statutes that had the sole purpose of fostering hospitality and deemed their reasoning inapplicable to the Indiana statute because, in addition to the hospitality rationale, Indiana's law is also intended to prevent collusive lawsuits that target insurance companies for damages. See Sidle v. Majors, 264 Ind. 206, 341 N.E.2d 763 (1976). Finding "the possibility of collusion . . . just as great when the owner is a passenger as when the owner is the operator," the district court held that the Indiana Supreme Court would find that an owner could be a guest in his own car. The District Court therefore granted summary judgment because, given no evidence of wanton or wilful misconduct by the driver, Coons' request for damages was foreclosed by the Indiana guest statute. This appeal followed.

II. Discussion

The district court correctly noted that, in the tort law context, Pennsylvania adheres to the interest analysis approach to conflicts of law. See Griffith v. United Air Lines, supra; see also In re Complaint of Banker's Trust, 752 F.2d 874, 882 (3d Cir. 1984) ("under Pennsylvania choice of law principles, the place having the most interest in the problem and which is the most intimately concerned with the outcome is the forum whose law should apply"). However, we need not address the question of which state has the greater interest in having its law apply to the case at bar. We find that the Supreme Court of Indiana would not consider Coons a guest in his own car. Because ...


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