Summary of Wrongful Death Award Hearing:
This is a review of a Conflict of Laws pre-trial hearing in a lawsuit which involved a wrongful death award to the family of a brick mason. Although the victim resided and was employed in the State of New York, his death occurred in the State of Connecticut while he was traveling to a work site. Because the circumstances of the lawsuit occurred in two different states, the courts had to determine which state had jurisdiction over the suit before the trial could begin.
To determine this important issue, the court held a Conflict of Laws hearing where it looked to see which state had the more “significant contacts” involving the wrongful death of the victim.
Statement of Facts…
On March 2, 2010, Darry Stupa was employed by the Yorkow Custom Builders Corporation. Yorkow was a large building construction contractor and had building projects all over the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Stupa, at the time, was a resident of the State of New York.
Stupa had been assigned to transport building supplies from Yorkow’s New York warehouse to an ongoing construction job in Windsor, Connecticut. Just as he crossed over the state line into Connecticut, one of the wheels from the truck he was driving broke loose from the axle, causing the truck to crash, killing Stupa.
A few days earlier the same truck had been repaired at the Forest Hills Service Station in Medford, New York. Forest Hills’ mechanic had replaced the brake pads on the truck, but inadvertently neglected to tighten the lug nuts on one of the wheels before the truck was picked up by Stupa.
After his death, Stupa’s family filed a lawsuit for a wrongful death award against Forest Hills Service Station in the New York State Supreme Court. Stupa’s attorney wanted to sue Forest Hills in the State of New York because New York law was much more favorable to plaintiffs in wrongful death award cases. Jury verdicts in New York have traditionally been twice and sometimes three times as high for victims of wrongful death cases as compared to any other state in the country.
The attorney for Forest Hills wanted the lawsuit to take place in the State of Connecticut because Connecticut’s wrongful death laws weren’t as favorable to plaintiffs as those in New York. She knew if Forest Hills lost the case in Connecticut, the verdict could be hundreds of thousands of dollars less than it might be in a New York state court.
Because there are legitimate reasons, called “significant contacts” which make the lawsuit triable in either state, with potentially very serious different outcomes, the conflict of law issue was vigorously litigated by both sides.
In almost all cases the Conflict of Laws issue is determined before the actual trial begins. The court in which the lawsuit is first filed will usually be the court deciding the issue of Conflict of Law.
To determine which state would ultimately hear the case, the court listened to arguments from both sides. The court’s decision on which state would ultimately hear the lawsuit would be determined by the Significant Contacts Rule.
According to this rule, the court has to take into account as many factors as are presented into evidence to determine which state has more significant contacts, and as a result, which state gets to try the lawsuit.
Significant Contacts are normally defined as the following, and more:
- The State in which the Victim resided
- The State in which the Victim was employed
- The State in which the Victim’s employer’s company was incorporated
- The State in which the negligence which led to the wrongful death took place
- The State in which the death occurred
- The State in which the construction job was underway
- The State in which the lawsuit was filed.
The Stupa family had filed the lawsuit in the State of New York, so the hearing was held in the New York State Supreme Court. Because Forest Hills were the party who wanted to have the case removed to another jurisdiction, the burden was on them to prove to the Court why the case should be transferred.
In support of its position, Forest Hills argued:
- The victim was killed in the State of Connecticut.
- Because this case was a wrongful death case, the coroner’s testimony about the cause of death would be very important. The Coroner was employed by the State of Connecticut.
- The autopsy was performed in the State of Connecticut.
- The construction worksite was in the State of Connecticut.
In support of its position, Stupas’ attorney argued:
- The Victim’s family who had filed the original wrongful death award lawsuit resided in the State of New York.
- Before his death the Victim resided in New York.
- The Defendant Forest Hills Service Station was located in New York.
- The Victim’s employer Yorkow Custom Builders was headquartered in New York.
- The negligent action which caused the wrongful death of the Victim occurred in New York.
When both sides rested and closed, the Court took the matter under advisement. Both sides were told they would receive the Court’s decision in the mail within a week. Several days later both parties received the Court’s decision. It read in part:
The determination of jurisdiction in a conflict of law case is not an easy task. When there are two states involved in a lawsuit, and each state has significant contacts related to each party, the Court must weigh and balance carefully each significant contact presented. Because each state has its own laws which apply in civil court cases, our decision may have substantial consequences.
The Court though, cannot be concerned with the consequences of its decision. The Court must administer blind justice. In the case before us the significant contacts were substantial. As a result the Court’s decision was made all the more difficult.
In the end though, the Court felt the State of New York possessed the more significant contacts. The Court employed the traditional “balancing test”; a balancing test used by the Courts for decades.
The Court therefore resolves the case in favor of the Plaintiff Stupa and his family. In so doing the Court retains jurisdiction of the case. Both sides will mutually agree on a trial date.
Wrongful death award cases normally involve detailed and complex testimony. The evidence presented and admitted in wrongful death cases often determines not only the liability of the parties, but more importantly, the nature and substance of a jury verdict.
When the issue of liability is clear, there is sometimes an additional obstacle which must be overcome before the case is tried. Many times that issue will be a conflict of laws.
In Conflict of Law cases the Court is faced with the task of determining which state has more of a right to determine the outcome of a lawsuit. The Court in which the Conflict of Law hearing is had must rely on a balancing test; one which by definition is subjective.
By weighing the significant contacts in each state the Court is able to decide which state should have jurisdiction over the issues and parties in the case. This decision can often have substantial effects upon wrongful death jury verdicts and other Court awards. That is why conflict of law hearings are vigorously litigated.
*This case example is for educational purposes only. It is based on actual events although names have been changed to protect those involved. Any resemblance to real persons or entities is purely coincidental.
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