The modern world is a complex place. Almost everything we wear, eat, and use has been made somewhere else from components that came from yet more places. As the world grows more complex and more interdependent, the laws governing it will do so as well. And, since we generally prefer to make changes to our legal system gradually, sometimes this gives rise to some strange results.
One of the areas this complexity is most obvious is air travel. You may be a resident of Virginia, flying from Arizona to Vermont, on an aircraft manufactured in Washington, operated by an airline physically based in Texas but incorporated in Delaware. Now suppose the plane crashes in Connecticut. Which of these jurisdictions is relevant to any legal matters that may arise from the incident?
Non lawyers reading this may wonder why it should matter. The answer of course is that the United States contains in excess of fifty separate legal codes. While most of these are quite similar in most matters, when litigating even the tiniest differences can be crucial.
Suppose, in the imaginary plane crash, that Connecticut has a statute limiting compensation for negligence to $20,000. Also suppose that one of the injured passengers is a resident of a state that has no such cap. This passenger would obviously prefer to operate under the set of rules more likely to completely compensate him for his injuries. The airline, by comparison, would prefer to use whichever set of statutes will most limit their liability. So, how do we decide which set of laws to use?
The answer, as is so often the case with legal matters, is that it depends. The traditional rule for tort cases involving personal injury claims is that the local law of the state where the injury occurred should control. In wrongful death cases this is because the wrongful death suit is entirely a creation of statute, no such tort existed at common law. This will control unless some other state has a more significant relationship to the injury or the parties. Factors relevant to whether another state has a more significant relationship include, the place of the injury, the place of conduct, where the parties are domiciled, and the place where the dealing between the parties was centered.
The courts may also look at the competing state interests to see which is more compelling. For instance, in 1984, a federal court held that Wyoming’s interest in seeing its citizens fully compensated outweighed Colorado’s interest in providing a stable business environment for corporations. Kinnett v. Sky’s West Parachute Center, Inc., 596 Supp. 1039 (DC Co. 1984). It thus allowed Wyoming’s statute to control, though the crash had been in Colorado.
It will then be in a plaintiff’s best interest to identify as many possible jurisdictions whose laws may prove helpful. Some particular areas include the duty of care owed by airlines operating as common carriers. This can vary radically, from the “highest degree of care,” in Florida, Krys v. Lufthansa German Airlines, 119 F. 3d 1515 (11th Cir. 1997), to a duty of “reasonable care under the circumstances,” in New York, Bethel v. New York City Transit Authority, 681 N.Y.S. 2d 201 (Ct. App., N.Y., 1998). If a plaintiff has substantial connections to a jurisdiction other than that where the accident occurred, it may be possible for the carrier to be held to a higher legal standard.
Many perfectly competent attorneys work almost entirely with the law of their own state. However, if you are ever involved in an accident involving an interstate domestic carrier, it is important that you select a personal injury lawyer who is familiar with common carrier work, and preferably one familiar with the laws of the state where the incident actually happened.