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Law School Case Brief

Tooker v. Lopez - 24 N.Y.2d 569, 301 N.Y.S.2d 519, 249 N.E.2d 394 (1969)


New York courts now have adopted a rule of choice of law in a conflict situation which looks to reason and justice in its selection of which law should apply and which fits the needs of today's world where long and frequent travel is no longer reserved to a few. The court rejects the lex loci delictus rule because it places controlling reliance upon one factor totally unrelated to the policies reflected by the ostensibly conflicting laws. The only fact less relevant to those policies in guest statute cases is whether the presence of the guest in the particular automobile was "adventitious."


On October 16, 1964, Catharina Tooker, a 20-year-old coed at Michigan State University, was killed when the Japanese sports car in which she was a passenger overturned after the driver had lost control of the vehicle while attempting to pass another car. The accident also took the life of the driver of the vehicle, Marcia Lopez, and seriously injured another passenger, Susan Silk. The two girls were classmates of Catharina Tooker at Michigan State University and lived in the same dormitory. They were en route from the university to Detroit, Michigan, to spend the weekend.

Catharina Tooker and Marcia Lopez were both New York domiciliaries. The automobile that Lopez was driving belonged to her father who resided in New York, where the sports car he had given his daughter was registered and insured.

This action for wrongful death was commenced by Oliver P. Tooker, Jr., the father of Catharina Tooker, as the administrator of her estate. The defendant asserted as an affirmative defense the Michigan "guest statute" (C.L.S., § 257.401 [Stat. Ann. 1960, § 9.2101]) which permits recovery by guests only by showing willful misconduct or gross negligence of the driver. The plaintiff moved to dismiss the affirmative defense on the ground that, under the governing choice-of-law rules, it was New York law rather than Michigan law which applied. The motion was granted by the Special Term Justice who concluded that: "New York State 'has the greatest concern with the specific issue raised in the litigation' and that New York law should apply." The Appellate Division (Third Department) agreed with "the cogent argument advanced by Special Term" but felt "constrained" by the holding in Dym v. Gordon (16 N.Y. 2d 120 [1965]) to apply the Michigan guest statute.


Was the administrator of Catharina Tooker’s estate barred from recovering damages for a wrong concededly committed because Catharina was a "guest" in Lopez’ automobile under the law in Michigan, the situs of the accident?




The Court of Appeals of New York reversed for the following reasons: (1) in determining the choice of law to apply, it was necessary first to isolate the issue, next to identify the policies embraced in the laws in conflict, and finally to examine the contacts of the respective jurisdictions to ascertain which had a superior interest in having its policy or law applied, (2) reviewing the facts in light of the policy considerations underlying ostensibly conflicting laws, it was clear that New York had the only real interest in whether recovery should be granted, and (3) application of Michigan law would have defeated a legitimate interest of the forum state without serving a legitimate interest of any other state.

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