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Washington v. Trinity Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 27, 2017



          LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.

         Plaintiff originally filed this diversity action, on November 13, 2014, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, alleging claims for negligence and product liability against Defendants. (ECF No. 1.) Defendants then filed a motion to transfer the action to the Northern District of Texas, the location of their headquarters. (ECF No. 14 at 6.) The District Court for the Eastern District of Texas denied Defendants' motion and sua sponte entered an order transferring the case to this Court. (ECF No. 30.) Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Apply North Carolina Law. (ECF No. 97.) For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that Texas law should apply.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendants are corporations organized under the laws of Delaware with their principal place of business in Dallas, Texas. (ECF No. 89 ¶¶ 2-3.) They are in the business of manufacturing and selling various highway safety and construction products across the United States. (Id. ¶ 12.) On the morning of November 29, 2013, Plaintiff, a resident of Greensboro, North Carolina, was driving to work on Interstate 40 when she fell asleep and collided with a “guardrail end terminal fitted on the blunt end of a line of guardrail.” (Id. ¶¶ 1, 7.) Plaintiff contends Defendants “designed, manufactured and marketed” the “impact head” of the guardrail and that “[a]t the time of the accident, the guardrail and impact head in question was defective and unreasonably dangerous.” (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10.)

         Following transfer of the action to this Court, Defendants raised for the first time that North Carolina law applied and that North Carolina's contributory negligence defense barred Plaintiff's claims.[1] (See ECF No. 40 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 41 at 6.) Plaintiff then moved to amend her Complaint. (ECF No. 68.) On August 31, 2016, the Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff's motion to amend, and Plaintiff filed her First Amended Complaint asserting the following claims: (1) negligence/product liability; (2) strict liability/product liability; and (3) gross negligence, intentional, willful, wanton conduct/punitive damages. (ECF No. 89 at 10-13.) Defendants now move for a determination of whether Texas or North Carolina law applies to this action.


         Ordinarily, a federal district court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the choice-of-law rules of the forum state in which it sits. Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496-97 (1941). The parties agree that, because this case was originally filed in the Eastern District of Texas and was transferred to this Court, Texas choice-of-law principles must be applied to determine whether North Carolina or Texas law governs this action. (ECF No. 98 at 7; ECF No. 99 at 3.) Which state law should govern an issue “is a question of law for the court to decide”; however, “the state contacts to be considered by the court in making this legal determination involves a factual inquiry.” Hughes Wood Prods., Inc. v. Wagner, 18 S.W.3d 202, 204 (Tex. 2000). Under Texas choice-of-law principles, the party urging application of another state's substantive law bears the burden of providing sufficient information to establish that the law of another state applies. Janvey v. Suarez, 978 F.Supp.2d 685, 692 (N.D. Tex. 2013). Thus, Defendants bear the burden of proof here.

         When presented with a choice-of-law question, Texas courts first determine whether there is an actual conflict between the laws of the applicable jurisdictions. See Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 419 (Tex. 1984). If no conflict exists, then a choice-of-law analysis is unnecessary. Schneider Nat'l Transp. v. Ford Motor Co., 280 F.3d 532, 536 (5th Cir. 2002). Here, the parties agree that the laws of Texas and North Carolina are in conflict with respect to each of Plaintiff's claims. (ECF No. 98 at 7; ECF No. 99 at 3-4.) The Court must, therefore, conduct a choice-of-law analysis to determine which state law governs.


         Texas follows the most-significant-relationship test, set out in §§ 6 and 145 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) (“Restatement”), to resolve choice-of-law issues. Gutierrez v. Collins, 583 S.W.2d 312, 318 (Tex. 1979). Under this test, the court must first determine which state law has the most significant relationship to each issue involved in the action. Hughes, 18 S.W.3d at 205. Section 6 of the Restatement outlines the basic policy considerations to be used to decide a choice-of-law question in any given case and directs the Court to consider the following factors:

(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,
(b) the relevant policies of the forum,
(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,
(d) the protection of justified expectations,
(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,
(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and
(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

         Restatement § 6(2); Gutierrez, 583 S.W.2d at 318-19. Section 145 is the more specific rule, which sets out the factual contacts to be considered when applying the § 6 policy factors. See Gutierrez, 583 S.W.2d at 318-19. Section 145 provides that “[t]he 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.” Restatement § 145(1). Thus, the Court must analyze how the following factual contacts outlined in § 145 impact the policy factors contained in § 6. See Hughes, 18 S.W.3d at 205. Section 145 factual contacts include the following:

(a) the place where the injury occurred,
(b) the place where the conduct causing the injured occurred,
(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and
(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

         Restatement § 145(2). The Restatement further advises that “[t]hese contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Id. The number of contacts with a state is not determinative; rather the contacts are to be evaluated by their qualitative character using the policy factors outlined in § 6. See Torrington Co. v. Stutzman, 46 S.W.3d 829, 848 (Tex. 2000). Because § 145 sets out the factual contacts specific to this case that must be used when applying § 6's general policy principles, the Court will begin its discussion with the § 145 contacts.

         A. Section 145 Factual Contacts

         1. Place Where ...

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