Choice of Law – Application of the Laws of Multiple States in One Action

One consideration that practitioners need to always keep in front of them is how choice of law principles can affect what state’s law applies in an action. A recent opinion by the District of Maryland is a good example of how the application of choice of law rules can result in the application of multiple states’ laws in one action. Desrosiers v. MAG Indus. Automation Sys., LLC, No. WDQ-07-2253, 2010 WL 4116991 (D. Md. Oct. 19, 2010). This opinion does not discuss any novel choice of law rules but is relevant to show the importance of the question — “What law is going to apply?”

David Desrosiers was killed while operating a horizontal boring machine at work in Maryland. The machine was manufactured and sold by a Wisconsin company in 1953. Bridget Desrosiers sued the manufacturer as well as its holding companies as a result of David Desrosiers’ death asserting various products liability claims. She brought both a wrongful death action and a survival action.

The Maryland district court granted summary judgment for the two holding company defendants and granted in part and denied in part summary judgment for the manufacturer.

In making its determination on defendants’ motions for summary judgment, the court first applied the basic rule that “[i]n a diversity case, the choice of law rules are those of the state in which the Court sits.” Therefore, the Court looked to the choice of law rules of Maryland. “Maryland generally follows the principle of lex loci delicti, which applies the law of the place ‘where the last event required to give rise to the tort occurred.'” Further, in Maryland, wrongful death actions are governed by statute.

Therefore, on Desrosiers’ survival claims, the Court applied lex loci delicti and determined that Maryland law applied because the decedent was at his work site in Maryland at the time of the injury that resulted in his death. However, on Desrosiers’ wrongful death claims, the Court looked to Maryland statutory law that stated that “if a wrongful act occurred in another state, [the Court] shall apply the substantive law of that jurisdiction.” The Court interpreted “wrongful act” as the act that entitles another party to recovery, and since Desrosiers claimed that the machine was defectively designed, the “wrongful act” occurred in Wisconsin where it was manufactured. The Court, therefore, applied Wisconsin law on Desrosiers’ wrongful death claims.

The Court applied both Maryland law and Wisconsin law throughout its opinion. The differences between Maryland law and Wisconsin law were not outcome determinative in this matter; however, it could be in other matters. That said, we need to always determine at the outset of a matter what law applies and be ready for any differences in the application of those states’ laws.