Laws of Two States Applied to Two Different Issues

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The plaintiff alleged the decedent, who died of mesothelioma, was exposed to asbestos while serving as an engineman, machinery repairman, and machinist mate in the U.S. Navy during the 1960s. Although the majority of the decedent’s exposure occurred on four ships, to which maritime law applied, the plaintiff also alleged exposure during the six months decedent trained at a land-based naval academy in Idaho. Here the court decided whether Idaho or Louisiana applied to this six-month time frame. The plaintiff argued Louisiana law applied, and defendants argued Idaho law applied. The court concluded that Louisiana law applied to the survivorship claim and Idaho law applied to the punitive damages issue.

Louisiana choice of law rules determined which state’s law applied. If the laws of the states did not conflict, then no choice of law analysis was necessary and the court applied the law of the forum state. If a conflict existed to more than one issue, each issue was analyzed separately. In this case, two conflicts existed: (1) Louisiana allowed a survival action and Idaho did not; (2) Idaho allowed punitive damages in wrongful death actions and Louisiana did not.

Generally, Louisiana law dictated that courts apply the law of the state whose policies would be most seriously impaired if its law were not applied. “That state is determined by evaluating the strength and pertinence of the relevant policies of all involved states in the light of: (1) the relationship of each state to the parties and the dispute; and (2) the policies and needs of the interstate and international systems, including the policies of upholding the justified expectations of parties and of minimizing the adverse consequences that might follow from subjecting a party to the law of more than one state.”

Regarding the survival claim, the tortious conduct (alleged exposures) and place of injury was Idaho. The decedent was domiciled in Louisiana, but the relationship between decedent and defendants centered in Idaho because this is where the alleged wrongful conduct and injury occurred. Both Idaho and Louisiana had policies that would be implicated in the choice of law – Idaho in regulating conduct within its borders, and Louisiana in seeing its injured citizens fully compensated. In evaluating the second factor, the court concluded that Louisiana would be more severely impaired if its survival law were not applied. In so finding, the court noted: “The distinction between conduct-regulating rules and loss-compensating rules is important to the choice of law decision between Louisiana’s survivorship law and Idaho’s survivorship law.” Here, the consequences of the alleged wrongful conduct were felt in Louisiana; as such, Louisiana’s interests would suffer the greater impairment if one of its residents remained uncompensated.

Regarding the punitive damages issue, the court again summarized the relevant contacts. Here, the plaintiff was the brother of the decedent; the plaintiff’s injury did not occur until his brother died in Louisiana. However, punitive damages were meant to deter wrongful conduct; here the tortious conduct occurred in Idaho. The court had difficulty locating a relevant Louisiana policy interest. Since punitive damages were meant to punish, and none of the alleged reckless behavior occurred in Louisiana, Idaho law applied to the punitive damages issue.

Read the full decision here.