Choice of law in Massachusetts wrongful death cases

Issue July/August 2017 July 2017 By Anthony L. DeProspo Jr.

Every year, Massachusetts swells with out-of-state and international residents attending Massachusetts universities. Massachusetts' high-tech industry and world-class medical facilities similarly attract thousands of non-Massachusetts residents. Accordingly, choice of law issues often arise in Massachusetts wrongful-death cases. The applicable law can have a significant impact on the value of a wrongful death case.

In a Massachusetts wrongful death action, "the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship … to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied." Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 175 (1971). Section 145 of the Restatement lists four types of contacts to be evaluated in identifying the jurisdiction that has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and/or the injuries:

  • the place where the injury occurred,
  • the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
  • the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and
  • the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws§ 145(2) (1971). Typically, if the injury occurs in Massachusetts and at least one party is a Massachusetts resident, Massachusetts law will apply.

Disposition of choice of law issues also turns "on the law of the jurisdiction which has the strongest interest in the resolution of the particular issue presented."1 Section 6(2) of the Restatement lists seven factors to consider when weighing the relative interests of a state in applying its law:

  • the needs of the interstate and international systems,
  • the relevant policies of the forum,
  • the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,
  • the protection of justified expectations,
  • the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,
  • certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and
  • ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws at § 6(2). "Although a number of important policies underlie the field of tort law, the Restatement identifies two in particular: the provision of compensation for injured victims and the deterrence of tortious conduct."2

The policy considerations underlying the Massachusetts wrongful death statute are clearly defined. "Massachusetts has a significant interest in seeing that … its resident Defendant[s] be held accountable for [their] conduct, which took place in Massachusetts, and which [] caused the plaintiff's injury."3 "[A]lthough the Massachusetts [wrongful death] statute is viewed as compensatory, it also serves a deterrent effect independent of its punitive damage provisions."4

In contrast, the policy considerations underlying international tort law, which usually caps damages for wrongful death, can be enigmatic. "[T]he general rule … is that a limit on recovery should not be applied when there is no domiciliary defendant because it advances no policy behind the limitation."5 Assuming no foreign domiciliaries are named defendants, Massachusetts likely has the dominant interest in seeing its laws enforced and compensation structure implemented.

The non-policy considerations contained in the Restatement also tend to weigh in favor of applying Massachusetts law. "[T]he absence of a defendant who is a [foreign] domiciliary and who would benefit from [a foreign] damages scheme allows [Massachusetts'] more generous law to be applied without threatening international comity."6 "[P]ersons who cause injury on non-privileged persons, particularly when the injury is unintentionally caused, usually act without giving thought to the law that may be applied to determine the legal consequences of this conduct." Id. "The interests of the Commonwealth in allowing the plaintiff's action are too strong to be affected by the general value of having [foreign] law apply uniformly to all actions having a connection with that State."7

As a general rule, Massachusetts law applies in a case where the injuries occurred in Massachusetts. However, a foreign jurisdiction's wrongful death compensation scheme may play a role in venue and litigation strategy.

FOOTNOTE

1. Pevoski v. Pevoski, 371 Mass. 358, 360 (1976).

2. Piamba Cortes v. American Airlines, Inc., 177 F.3d 1272, 1302 (11th Cir. 1999).

3. Cosme v. Whitin Machine Works, Inc., 417 Mass. 643, 649 (1994).

4. Schulhof v. Northeast Cellulose, Inc., 545 F. Supp. 1200, 1208 (D. Mass. 1982).

5. Piamba Cortes, 177 F. 3d at 1300.

6. Piamba Cortes, 177 F. 3d at 1302.

7. Cosme, 417 Mass. at 650.