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Ward v. Morlock

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

May 5, 2017

LIA WARD, Appellant,
v.
KEITH M. MORLOCK, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Orange County, John Marshall Kest, Judge.

          Lindsey M. Tenberg, Lighthouse Point, for Appellant.

          Michael M. Brownlee, of Fisher Rushmer, P.A., Orlando, for Appellee.

          LAMBERT, J.

         The issue that we address in this conflict of laws case is whether Florida's dangerous instrumentality law should apply to a case arising out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred in South Carolina where the only two parties to the litigation are Florida residents. The material facts of the case are not in dispute. Appellee, Keith Morlock, and his family were vacationing in South Carolina with his brother-in-law, Paul Behrens, and his family. Behrens' son needed a ride to a local airport, and Behrens asked Appellee if he could borrow his vehicle. Appellee consented, and while on the way to the airport, Behrens rear-ended the car that Appellant, Lia Ward, was driving at an intersection located in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

         Appellant filed a negligence suit solely against Appellee, seeking damages under Florida's dangerous instrumentality doctrine, which provides that an owner of a motor vehicle is generally liable for injuries that are caused by the vehicle's negligent operation. Michalek v. Shumate, 524 So.2d 426, 427 (Fla. 1988). Appellee answered the complaint, and after the parties conducted some preliminary discovery, Appellee moved for final summary judgment. Appellee argued that South Carolina law, rather than Florida law, governed and that under South Carolina law, the mere ownership of a vehicle is, without more, insufficient to establish the owner's liability for the negligence of the driver. See Thompson v. Michael, 433 S.E.2d 853, 855-56 (S.C. 1993). Appellee argued that because there was no evidence that he negligently entrusted his vehicle to his brother-in-law or that he would otherwise be liable to Appellant under South Carolina's "Family Purpose Doctrine, "[1] final summary judgment was proper. The trial court determined that South Carolina law, rather than Florida law, applied and thereafter entered final summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

         "The standard of review for choice-of-law questions is de novo." Higgins v. W. Bend Mutual Ins. Co., 85 So.3d 1156, 1157-58 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012) (citing Sosa v. Safeway Premium Fin. Co., 73 So.3d 91, 102 (Fla. 2011); Sigalas v. Lido Maritime, Inc., 776 F.2d 1512, 1516 (11th Cir. 1985)). In determining which state's law applies in conflict of laws cases, Florida courts historically utilized the lex loci delicti rule that made the substantive law of the state where the injury occurred applicable to personal injury actions. See Hopkins v. Lockheed Aircraft Corp., 201 So.2d 743, 745-46 (Fla. 1967). However, in 1980, the Florida Supreme Court receded from this doctrine and adopted the "significant relationships test" as set forth in sections 145-146 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (Am. Law. Inst. 1971), which it described as the "more flexible, modern approach" in determining this issue. Bishop v. Fla. Specialty Paint Co., 389 So.2d 999, 1001 (Fla. 1980).

         The cited sections of the Restatement provide:

§ 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:
(a) the place where the injury occurred,
(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury ...

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