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Erwin v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

March 1, 2018

DENNIS ERWIN, individually and as Executor of the Estate of SUSAN ERWIN, deceased, Plaintiff,
FORD MOTOR COMPANY and ALBERT MCCLINTON, individually, Defendants.



         This case arises out of a fatal accident in Florida, where a side airbag in a Ford Edge being driven by Plaintiff Dennis Erwin's wife failed to deploy, allegedly because of a defect in design.

         The case was removed from state court to a federal district court in Florida. That court then reached a rather novel conclusion-that asserting specific jurisdiction over Defendant Ford Motor Company in Florida would violate principles of due process, which resulted in transfer of the case to Delaware. Venue here is a fait accompli, but a question remains as to what law should govern. Plaintiff moves for application of Florida law on comparative negligence, a pure standard that allows a plaintiff to recover even if her percentage share of liability exceeds 50 percent. Under Delaware's choice of law rules, the law of the state where an injury occurs presumptively applies. For a variety of reasons, prominent among them the fact that Plaintiff and his wife regularly spent some of their winter months in Florida, Ford has failed to rebut that presumption, with the result that Plaintiff's motion will be granted.

         I. Relevant Facts

         The accident occurred in March 2014, as the Erwins were traveling from Port Charlotte, starting a journey back to their permanent residence in Ohio. Plaintiff's decedent, Susan Erwin, was driving the Ford and executing a U-turn when she was struck by an oncoming car. The Erwins were Ohio citizens, but their visit to Florida was not a casual one. The record reflects that over the winter, they spent several months in Florida as part of the population colloquially known as “snowbirds, ” as they had for 13 years before. The striking driver, Albert McClinton, against whom Ford has asserted a cross-claim, was a Florida citizen at the time of the accident. Mrs. Erwin had surgery in Florida for injuries sustained in the accident, but tragically died a month later.

         The Erwins acquired the car through what is best described as the stream of commerce. Ford's principal place of business is Michigan, where the design process occurred, but the vehicle itself was fabricated in Ontario, Canada in 2009. Ford's vehicles are sold by dealerships all across the United States, with over a hundred of those dealerships in Florida alone. This particular vehicle was sold to an independent dealership in Watsonville, California, and thereafter purchased by a rental car company. That company then transferred ownership to a Sidney, Ohio resident in April 2010, from whom the Erwins acquired it in July of that same year. They registered it in Powell, Ohio, but regularly used the vehicle in Florida over the winter months.

         II. Procedural History

         Because I must consider the contacts and interests of various states in resolving the issue before me, I feel constrained to comment upon how this action came onto the docket in Delaware, particularly since Delaware's choice of law rules in wrongful death and personal injury cases favor application of the law where the injury occurred. Although I am bound by the transfer, Erwin v. Ford Motor Company, 2016 WL 7655398 (M.D. Fla. 2016), the due process analysis of the transferring court seems tenuous at best. To my knowledge, no court has ever reached a similar result in a case involving a manufacturer with nationwide distribution, and the cases upon which the decision rested presented far different facts.

         The transferring court relied heavily upon Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115, 1119-20 (2014), which held that a Nevada court could not assert personal jurisdiction over a Georgia police officer merely because Nevada residents were the subject of the officer's contributions to a faulty affidavit, filed in Georgia. Given the facts in Walden, it is not easily or naturally construed as discarding well-established principles of specific jurisdiction, because there simply is no equivalence between a law enforcement officer acting within the confines of his local jurisdiction, and a multinational corporation whose economic model is premised on the sale and use of its vehicles in all fifty states.

         The second case on which the transferring court relied, Oldfield v. Pueblo De Bahia Lora, S.A., 558 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir. 2009), does not appear to depart from or question traditional understandings of specific jurisdiction. There, an American who was injured while on a fishing excursion in Costa Rica sought to bring suit in Florida against the foreign resort that had organized the outing. The plaintiff had booked his stay at the resort through the internet, the defendant had no physical presence in Florida, and its sole connection to the state was a single promotional event unrelated to the plaintiff's trip. Not surprisingly, the Eleventh Circuit found insufficient contacts to support jurisdiction. Those facts certainly bear no resemblance to cases involving a mass-produced product marketed in every state. Even where the Supreme Court has taken steps to narrow the concept of specific jurisdiction, it has continued to recognize that a plaintiff who brings suit in a state where he resides and has suffered injury stands on a different footing than one unconnected to the forum. Thus, in rejecting specific jurisdiction in a suit brought against a pharmaceutical company by out-of-state plaintiffs, the Court in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County, 137 S.Ct. 1773, 1782 (2017) emphasized that “[the] relevant plaintiffs are not California residents and do not claim to have suffered harm in that State.”

         Ironically, in tort cases, Florida's choice of law rules also presumptively favor applying the law of the state where the injury occurred. Bishop v. Fla. Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999, 1001 (Fla. 1980). In short, I find myself in the anomalous position of applying Delaware choice of law principles, which coincidentally mirror those of Florida, to a case which arose in Florida, which I am convinced was properly filed there in the first instance. It is against that backdrop that I address the pending motion.

         III. Discussion

         As a federal judge sitting in diversity in the state of Delaware, I must look to Delaware's rules governing choice of law to resolve the issue before me. 28 U.S.C. § 1631; Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496 (1941). As an initial matter, I agree that there is a conflict between Florida law, for which Plaintiff advocates, and the law of other potentially interested states. Delaware, Ohio, and Michigan all have a modified comparative fault rule that would bar recovery unless Plaintiff could show that his deceased wife was less than 50 percent at fault for her injuries; Florida's pure comparative fault standard would not bar recovery. The consequences of this difference are meaningful, but it is nonetheless a matter of degree. Comparative negligence principles were adopted by courts and legislatures as a remedial measure to ameliorate the harsh consequences of the common law principle of contributory negligence. Dan B. Dobbs, Paul T. Hayden, & Ellen M. Bublick, The Law of Torts §§ 218, 220 (2d ed. 2011). Florida differs only in that it provides plaintiffs with a greater degree of relief.

         The controlling case for purposes of my analysis is Bell Helicopter Textron, Incorporated v. Arteaga, 113 A.3d 1045, 1052 (Del. 2015) [hereinafter Bell], which re-affirmed that Delaware follows the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws [hereinafter “Restatement (Second)”]. The relevant principles are set forth in a series of interlocking sections. Section 145 provides:

(1) The rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in § 6.
(2) Contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include:
(a) the place where the injury occurred,
(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business ...

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