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A Pennsylvania man injured in an accident with a New York driver on a Pennsylvania road has won the right to use New York’s more plaintiff-friendly law to sue not only the driver but also the New York car rental agency that owned the car, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In Garcia v. Plaza Oldsmobile Ltd., a unanimous three-judge panel concluded that there is a “false conflict” between Pennsylvania and New York law since the New York courts have held that it applies to accidents outside that state and Pennsylvania would have no interest in prohibiting a Pennsylvania resident from using it. “It is clear that New York’s interest in protecting persons injured by New York vehicles, whether injured or harmed within or without New York State, would be impaired by the application of Pennsylvania’s less expansive liability law which in this case would free Plaza from liability,” Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Morton I. Greenberg wrote. “While Pennsylvania law protects the owner of the vehicle from liability in a way that New York law does not, we cannot understand why Pennsylvania would have an interest in an owner of a vehicle from another state being shielded from vicarious liability imposed under the law of that state attributable to the negligence of a driver operating the vehicle with the owner’s consent,” Greenberg wrote in an opinion joined by Circuit Judges Edward R. Becker and Samuel A. Alito Jr. According to court papers, on Feb. 25, 2002, plaintiff Rodolfo Garcia of Stroudsburg, Pa., was driving north on Rt. 715 in Monroe County, Pa., when Timothy Gladney, who was headed south, attempted to make a left turn, causing a collision. Garcia’s lawyers — Richard A. Russo and Andrew D. Bigda of Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg, naming Gladney and Plaza Oldsmobile of Brooklyn where Gladney had rented a car that day. The suit alleged that Plaza, as the owner of the car, was liable under Section 388(1) of New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law. Plaza’s lawyer, John J. McGrath of McKissock & Hoffman’s Haddonfield, N.J., office, moved for summary judgment, arguing that the New York law did not apply and that, under Pennsylvania law, Plaza could not be held vicariously liable. But Senior U.S. District Judge Richard P. Conaboy of the Middle District of Pennsylvania sided with Garcia and held that he had the right to invoke the New York law because its differences from Pennsylvania law amounted to a “false conflict.” On appeal, McGrath argued that Conaboy’s analysis of the choice-of-law question was flawed because Pennsylvania courts have refused to apply another state’s laws merely to provide an advantage to a plaintiff. In Miller v. Gay, McGrath noted, the Pennsylvania Superior Court said “inhabitants of a state … should not be accorded rights not given them by their home states just because a visitor from a state offering higher protection decides to visit there.” But the 3rd Circuit has now concluded that Conaboy’s analysis was correct and that Pennsylvania courts would allow a plaintiff such as Garcia to use the New York law. More than four decades ago, Greenberg said, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court substantially altered its approach to conflicts-of-law questions. In the 1964 decision in Griffith v. United Air Lines Inc., Greenberg said, Pennsylvania’s justices abandoned the traditional “lex loci delicti” conflicts rule — in which the law of the place of the wrong governed the substantive rights and liabilities of the parties — and adopted “a more flexible rule which permits analysis of the policies and interests underlying the particular issue before the court.” Greenberg found that the first question a court must always address is whether a “true conflict” exists. A true conflict exists, Greenberg said, “when the governmental interests of both jurisdictions would be impaired if their law were not applied.” But the conflict is a false one, Greenberg found, “if only one jurisdiction’s governmental interests would be impaired by the application of the other jurisdiction’s law.” If the conflict is found to be false, Greenberg said, courts must “apply the law of the only interested jurisdiction.” In comparing New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law to Pennsylvania’s common law, Greenberg found that Conaboy was correct in declaring the conflict a false one since New York’s interests would suffer if its law were not applied while Pennsylvania has no interest in barring application of the New York law. “The New York legislature in enacting Section 388 furthered its dual policy of (1) providing injured plaintiffs with a financially responsible defendant, and (2) imposing a high degree of responsibility on owners who allow others to operate their vehicles, by enacting an all-embracing mandatory insurance scheme,” Greenberg wrote. Greenberg also said he found it “difficult to conceive of any case in which a person injured in Pennsylvania or, indeed, in any common law state, would be better off by the application of local as opposed to New York law.” Failing to apply Section 388, Greenberg said, “would impair New York’s interest in ensuring that entities such as Plaza share in New York’s goal of protecting the victims of tortfeasors, as well as demanding responsibility of owners who allow others to operate their vehicles.” By contrast, Greenberg said, New York’s interest in having its law applied to an owner in the position of Plaza “clearly would be undermined by the application of Pennsylvania common law in a case such as this, in which the vehicle’s operator and owner did not have an agency relationship, so that vicarious liability would not be imposed on the owner.” Turning to Pennsylvania’s interest in having its common law applied, Greenberg found that the New York law would work no harm. “As the state of Garcia’s domicile, Pennsylvania has an interest in providing for his recovery if Gladney is liable in order to make him whole. Yet it is clear that the application of New York’s vicarious liability law cannot undermine the advancement of that interest,” Greenberg wrote. “Simply put, Plaza is unable to demonstrate how the application of New York’s more plaintiff friendly provision would undermine Pennsylvania’s interest in ensuring that its injured residents are compensated fully,” Greenberg wrote.

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