Chapter 17: Conflict of Laws in Tort Cases

§17.1 Generally

The Case: Hataway v. McKinley, 830 S.W.2d 53 (Tenn. 1992).

The Basic Facts: The decedent, Grady Hataway, died as a result of complications from a scuba dive in an Arkansas rock quarry. The dive took place as part of a scuba class taught at Memphis State University by the defendant, Robert McKinley. Although both the decedent and the defendant were life-long residents of Tennessee, the trial court (consistent with existing law) held that Arkansas law governed the plaintiffs' wrongful death action under the lex loci delicti doctrine. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Bottom Line:

  • "Our review of the background and modern development of conflicts of law rules convinces us that the lex loci delicti doctrine should be abandoned. Today we announce a new rule - the 'most significant relationship' approach of the [Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws] (1971). Applying the 'most significant relationship' approach to the facts of this case, we find that the State of Tennessee has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties, and that Tennessee law should govern the action accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals' decision applying Arkansas law to this case." 830 S.W.2d at 54.

  • "The first issue we address on this appeal is whether there is a conflict between Arkansas and Tennessee law. Recovery by the plaintiffs under either Arkansas or Tennessee law is predicated on negligence, which is the failure to use reasonable and ordinary care under the circumstances which proximately causes the plaintiff's injuries." Id. at 55.

    Author's Note: The Court found a difference between the law of the two states, both in terms of liability and damages available for wrongful death. The discussion of the differences between the law of the two states is omitted given the material change in Tennessee law in both areas since April 27, 1992.
  • "The doctrine of lex loci delicti has been the rule in Tennessee for over 100 years. See East Tennessee, V. & G.R. Co. v. Lewis, 89 Tenn. 235, 14 S.W. 603 (1890). Under this doctrine, a Tennessee court will determine the substantive rights of an injured party according to the law of the state where the injury occurred. Winters v. Maxey, 481 S.W.2d 755, 756 (Tenn. 1972). However, there is a public policy exception to the doctrine and the law of Tennessee will be applied 'where the law of the jurisdiction where the tort occurred is against good morals or natural justice, or for some other reason, its enforcement would be prejudicial to the general interests of our citizens.'" Id. at 55.
  • "We agree with the great majority of other jurisdictions that the doctrine of lex loci is outmoded because of changes in society, causing a consequential development of modern law. The lex loci doctrine had its conceptual foundation in the common-law vested rights doctrine, which was founded on respect for a state's territorial sanctity. We observe that in today's modern industrial world, the vested rights theory, with its emphasis on territorial boundaries, has little relevance. 'State and national boundaries are of less significance today by reason of the increased mobility of our population and of the increasing tendency of men to conduct their affairs across boundary lines.'" Id. at 57 (citations and footnote omitted).
  • "A majority of states abandoning lex loci have adopted the approach of the [Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws] (1971). Under this approach, a court applies the 'law of the state where the injury occurred ... unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship ... to the occurrence and the parties.'" Id. (citation omitted).
  • "We think the approach of the [Restatement (Second)] is superior for several reasons. The [Restatement] provides that the law of the state where the injury occurred will be applied unless some other state has a more significant relationship to the litigation. We conclude this is the more logical position because generally the law of the state where the injury occurred will have the most significant relationship to the litigation. In addition, the [Restatement] is easier to apply in difficult cases because it provides a 'default' rule whereby trial courts can apply the law of the place where the injury occurred when each state has an almost equal relationship to the litigation. Moreover, the [Restatement] approach allows a court to apply the law of a state that legitimately has a stronger interest in the controversy, as opposed to a state that may have no interest at all in the proceedings." Id. at 59.

  • "Accordingly, we adopt the 'most significant relationship' approach of §§ 6, 145, 146, and 175 of the [Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws] (1971), which provides:
    § 145. The General Principle
    1. The rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to an issue in tort are determined by the local law of the state, which with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in § 6.
    2. Contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include:
      1. the place where the injury occurred,
      2. the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
      3. the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties,
      4. the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.
      These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.
    § 146. Personal Injuries
    In an action for personal injury, 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 under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied.
    § 175. Right of Action for Death
    In an action for wrongful death, 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 under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied."
    Id. at 59-60 (footnote omitted).
  • "Having adopted the 'most significant relationship' approach of the [Restatement (Second)], we return to the facts of this case to determine whether Arkansas or Tennessee law should be applied. The only contact the parties had with the State of Arkansas was that the injury occurred in that state. Both the decedent and the defendant were life-long residents of Tennessee and neither owned any property in Arkansas. The parties' relationship was centered in Tennessee because the relationship was formed and continued as a result of the decedent's participation in the scuba class taught at Memphis State by the defendant. We think the fact that the injury occurred in Arkansas was merely a fortuitous circumstance, and that the State of Arkansas has no interest in applying its laws to this dispute between Tennessee residents. Under the facts here presented, we conclude that although the injury occurred in Arkansas, the State of Tennessee has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the factors and contacts set out in §§ 6 and 145 of [Restatement (Second)]." Id. at 60.

Other Sources of Note: Timoshchuk v. Long of Chattanooga Mercedes-Benz , No. E2008-01562-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 3230961 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2009) (Hataway does not apply to choice of law issues concerning contracts); Lemons v. Cloer, 206 S.W. 3d 60 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (Georgia law held to apply to Georgia school bus wreck that occurred in Tennessee); In re Bridgestone/Firestone, 138 S.W.3d 202 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (suggesting that Mexican law would probably apply to products liability claims arising out of injuries or deaths occurring in Mexico notwithstanding presence of manufacturer in Tennessee).

Recent Cases: Williams v. Smith, No. M2013-02606-COA-R3-CV, 2014 WL 6065818 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 6, 2014) (car involved in accident in Tennessee was owned by North Carolina residents, but insurance policy contained Missouri choice of law provision; car was used by daughter principally in Missouri where she attended college so choice of law provision upheld).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

To schedule an appointment, contact us online or call us at 615-742-4880 or toll-free at 866-812-8787.



The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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