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Laugelle v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc.

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

October 1, 2013

SUSAN DURKIN LAUGELLE, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of Joseph Laugelle, Jr., deceased, and as Next Friend to Anna Grace Laugelle and Margaret Grace Laugelle, Plaintiffs,
BELL HELICOPTER TEXTRON, INC., et al., Defendants.

Submitted: September 9, 2013

Gary Aber, Esquire, Law Offices of Gary Aber, Wilmington, Delaware, Arthur Alan Wolk, Esquire, pro hac vice, Bradley J. Stoll, Esquire (argued), pro hac vice, Cynthia M. Devers, Esquire, pro hac vice, Michael S. Miska, Esquire, pro hac vice, The Wolk Law Firm, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

Richard Barkasy, Esquire (argued), Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant Rolls-Royce Corporation and Rolls-Royce North America, Inc.

Richard Galperin, Esquire and David Soldo, Esquire, Morris James LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, V.L. Woolston, Esquire, Perkins Coie LLP, Seattle, Washington, Attorneys for Honeywell International, Inc.


Paul R. Wallace, Judge

I. Introduction

This wrongful death action arises out of a helicopter crash that occurred on December 11, 2008, in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Sabine Pass, Texas.[1] Joseph Laugelle, Jr., the pilot of the helicopter ("Pilot"), was transporting four passengers to an off-shore oil rig when the helicopter went down about two miles offshore.[2]

In December 2010, Plaintiff Susan Durkin Laugelle, the Pilot's wife, brought suit against the manufacturers of the helicopter, its engine, and its engine accessories, as well as a company that previously owned and maintained the helicopter. Mrs. Laugelle alleges, inter alia, that her husband died as a result of chest injuries and asphyxia due to drowning.[3]She seeks damages for wrongful death on behalf of herself, as personal representative of the Pilot's estate, and as next friend to the Laugelles' two minor daughters. Defendants have filed a motion to determine which state's law the Court should apply to the Plaintiffs' claims for compensatory damages. This is the Court's decision on that discrete issue.[4]

II. Factual and Procedural Background

On July 3, 2013, Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Limited, Rolls-Royce Corporation, Air Logistics, LLC, Bristow Group, Inc., and Honeywell International Inc. (collectively "Defendants") jointly filed a motion to determine applicable law, in which they requested that the Court rule that Massachusetts law governs Plaintiffs' claim for compensatory damages.

Mrs. Laugelle and her two children are citizens and residents of Massachusetts.[5] The Pilot was also a citizen and resident of Massachusetts at the time of his death, [6] and his estate is established under Massachusetts law.[7] While some of the Defendant companies are incorporated in Delaware, all are headquartered elsewhere, in a variety of different states and countries.[8]

III. Discussion

As the forum jurisdiction, Delaware's choice-of-laws rules are used to determine the applicable law on a particular issue in a specific case.[9] The matter of the measure of compensatory damages is substantive, not procedural, and may, therefore, be properly subjected to a choice-of-law analysis.[10]

Under Delaware's choice-of-law approach, a court conducts a two-part inquiry.[11] As the Delaware Supreme Court recently made clear in Deuley v. DynCorp International, Inc., it must be first determined that there is an actual – rather than no or merely a 'false' – conflict.[12] If there is no actual conflict, "the Court should avoid the choice-of-law analysis altogether, "[13] but if a true conflict exists, the Court then applies the "most significant relationship" test as outlined in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws.[14] In determining whether there is an actual conflict, Delaware state courts (and the federal courts applying Delaware's rules) answer a single and simple query: does application of the competing laws yield the same result?[15]

But Plaintiffs propose an additional inquiry borrowed from elsewhere to support their assertion that a "false conflict" exists and prevents a conflict-of-laws analysis. In the Plaintiffs' view, the Court should also determine if "only one jurisdiction's governmental interests would be impaired by the application of another jurisdiction's law."[16] If so, they say, then only a "false conflict" exists and the Court need go no further.[17]

The Court rejects Plaintiffs' invitation to engraft this additional requirement into Delaware's conflict-of-laws rules. Courts applying Delaware's rules have not conducted, as Plaintiffs suggest, this separate inquiry, which can lead to a finding that an actual conflict exists only when the governmental interests of both of the competing jurisdictions would be impaired if the Court did not apply their law. And Plaintiffs have not convinced the Court that adding this complexity[18] to Delaware's rules is either warranted or even advisable.

The two competing states' laws before the Court are those of Delaware and Massachusetts.[19] Defendants, as Movants, posit the following differences between the two states' laws governing compensatory damages: (1) Massachusetts law does not allow recovery for survivors' grief, anguish, or bereavement upon a wrongful death claim; and (2) Massachusetts would calculate economic damages as the amount of the lost income that the Pilot would have contributed to the survivors if the Pilot had not died.[20] In Delaware, Defendants contend, a plaintiff's award may include "loss of monetary benefits, loss of parental and household services, and mental anguish."[21]

Applying the Delaware construct, the Court finds a true conflict exists; that is, the Court finds application of the competing laws would create distinct results.[22] Considering the differences in the laws, any resulting compensatory damages award in this case would certainly differ should the Court apply Massachusetts rather than Delaware law. In turn, the Court moves to the second part of the analysis – application of the "most significant relationship" test.

Choice-of-law determinations must be made as to each issue when presented, not to the case as a whole.[23] This Court, therefore, considers the sole issue of which state, Delaware or Massachusetts, has the most significant relationship to the Plaintiffs' claim for compensatory damages.[24]And the Court must consider the following contacts in applying the relevant Restatement[25] factors and in determining the law applicable to this particular issue: (a) the place where the injury occurred; (b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred; (c) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and; (d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.[26]This application of the most significant relationship test is not an exercise of "simply add[ing] up the interests on both sides of the equation and automatically apply[ing] the law of the jurisdiction meeting the highest number of contacts . . . [the test] has a qualitative aspect. The contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue":[27] here, to compensatory damages.

As to the first element, the Pilot's alleged physical injury occurred off the coast of Texas, but the survivor Plaintiffs' injuries – the loss to be compensated – occurred and will be experienced in Massachusetts, where they are domiciled. Second, the conduct causing the alleged injuries appears, at this initial stage, to have also occurred in Texas. Third, as previously mentioned, and as the parties represented at oral argument, Massachusetts is the Plaintiffs' domicile, was the Pilot's domicile state, and is also the location of his estate. Not one party to this action is domiciled in Delaware. And while some of the Defendants are incorporated in Delaware, none are headquartered in either Massachusetts or in Delaware. Because there is really no relationship between the current parties – as it relates to damages – the final factor is of little moment in this particular case. Again under the most significant relationship test, it is not the quantity, but the quality of contacts which is important.[28]

Plaintiffs note that the helicopter's downing and the Pilot's passing occurred off the shore of Texas, but do not propose that Texas law should be applied. Even if they did, the location of the occurrence of the injury is regularly considered an inferior contact in comparison to the other Restatement factors.[29] Particularly here, considering Document1zzB00662029155996the array of jurisdictions which have some interest or tie to the parties, the occurrence, or another issue present in this case, the place of the injury carries minimal weight. So with respect to the particular issue of compensatory damages presented here, the weight of the first and third contacts is determinative; Massachusetts, where the Pilot's loved ones experienced and still experience the economic difficulties, the pain, and the suffering his loss has visited upon them, and for which they seek some measure of recovery, holds the contacts far superior in this regard.[30] It is there that the Laugelle Family lives with the consequences of the Pilot's demise.

Weighing the Restatement contacts, the Court finds Massachusetts law has the most significant relationship to the particular issue of compensatory damages presented here. Put simply, as to the particular issue of any compensatory damages potentially due the Laugelle Family, Delaware has virtually no connection.

IV. Conclusion

For the forgoing reasons, Defendants' Motion to Determine Massachusetts Law Applicable to the Issue of Compensatory Damages is GRANTED.


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