A Neu Neumeier: The Need for a More Flexible Framework for Choice of Law in the State of New York

By Salamon, Elie | Albany Law Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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A Neu Neumeier: The Need for a More Flexible Framework for Choice of Law in the State of New York


Salamon, Elie, Albany Law Review


"The only way to create a foundational document that could stand the test of time was to build in enough flexibility that later generations would be able to adapt it to their own needs and uses." (1)

INTRODUCTION

During the second half of the twentieth century, choice of law principles in the United States came under heavy criticism. (2) Choice of law disputes arise in cases that involve "facts connected to different jurisdictions," and require courts to determine which jurisdiction's law should apply. (3) Initially, the increasing complexities surrounding this field of law led the majority of jurisdictions in the United States to follow the "traditional" choice of law rule in tort actions (also commonly referred to as lex loci delicti) (4) embodied in the original Restatement of Conflict of Laws: "the substantive rights and liabilities arising out of a tortious occurrence are determinable by the law of the place of the tort." (5)

This theory posited "that a right to recover for a foreign tort owes its creation to the law of the jurisdiction where the injury occurred and depends for its existence and extent solely on such law." (6) However, the doctrine--once praised for its ease of application and predictability--soon became discredited for its rigidity and ignorance of other interested jurisdictions. (7) Thus, the traditional rule was abandoned by the majority of jurisdictions, in search of a rule that was less mechanical and allowed for greater flexibility in its application. (8)

New York "played a major role in the evolution of modern choice of law theories," and its jurisprudence and case law are still given considerable attention by conflicts theorists. (9) The New York Court of Appeals led the charge against the traditional approach, and became the first jurisdiction to openly abandon it as its rule. (10) However, while New York was once a respected leader in the field of conflict of laws, its influence in the field has decreased over the last several decades. (11) This is a direct result of the Court of Appeals' pronouncement to be the first jurisdiction to adopt a rigidly applied mechanical framework for a set of rules that would govern all future tort conflict situations, which has come to be known as the Neumeier rules. (12) Since the adoption of these rules, not a single jurisdiction has followed suit; the majority have instead elected to adopt alternative conflicts approaches, primarily that of the Second Restatement of Conflict of Laws. (13) These other jurisdictional approaches differ from the approach adopted in New York, primarily in their fluidity and ability to adapt to the particular circumstances involved on a case-by-case basis.

In June 2011, the Court of Appeals was presented with a question of first impression--a unique case that had never before reached its courtroom--involving questions of choice of law concerning "nondomiciliary defendants [who were] jointly and severally liable to nondomiciliary plaintiffs in a tort action arising out of a single incident within the State of New York." (14) The case, Edwards v. Erie Coach Lines Co., involved multiple defendants, domiciled in Ontario and Pennsylvania, who were in a car accident in the State of New York. (15) The majority's holding in the case, and the application of New York's choice of law rule, highlighted the deficiencies in the Neumeier rules: their rigid nature and inability, at times, to render a fair and equitable result.

Moreover, the court's decision in Edwards brings to the forefront the reason that New York has fallen behind in the conflicts field and is no longer the major and esteemed player it once was: its choice of law framework is inadequate to deal with the wide range of cases and circumstances that arise in the multistate and international system that exists today. While a set of mechanical rules can be useful, goals of uniformity and predictability should not be accentuated at the expense of bedrock principles such as fairness, justice, and equity.

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