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Appellants appealed from a Superior Court decision denying their motion for summary judgment in this matter arising from a single-vehicle accident caused by a Delaware resident in North Carolina, while operating a motor vehicle registered in Delaware. Appellants contended that the Superior Court erred as a matter of law by holding that Delaware's law of comparative negligence, and not North Carolina's law of contributory negligence, applied to plaintiff's claims of personal injuries from the accident. The court held that the record reflected that Delaware had the most significant relationship to the parties and the occurrence. Therefore, the Delaware doctrine of comparative negligence applied to plaintiff's claims against both appellants and the judgment of the Superior Court was affirmed.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE
JAMES ROBERT SINNOTT,
CATHERINE A. PEPPER A/K/A
DERRICK THOMPSON, by his
Guardian Ad Litem, KELLY M.
No. 319, 2011
Court Below – Superior Court
of the State of Delaware,
in and for Kent County
C.A. No. K09C-11-041
Submitted: November 9, 2011
Decided: November 16, 2011
Before HOLLAND, BERGER and RIDGELY, Justices.
Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.
Robert J. Leoni, Esquire, Shelsby & Leoni, Stanton, Delaware, for
Nicholas H. Rodriguez, Esquire, Schmittinger & Rodriguez, P.A.,
Dover, Delaware, for appellee.
The defendants-appellants, James Robert Sinnott (“Sinnott”) and
Catherine A. Pepper a/k/a/ Catherine Sinnott (“Pepper”) (collectively, the
“appellants”) appeal from a Superior Court decision denying their motion
for summary judgment in this matter arising from a single-vehicle accident
caused by a Delaware resident in North Carolina, while operating a motor
vehicle registered in Delaware. The appellants contend that the Superior
Court erred as a matter of law by holding that Delaware’s law of
comparative negligence, and not North Carolina’s law of contributory
negligence, applied to plaintiff-appellee Derrick Thompson’s (“Thompson”)
claims of personal injuries from the accident.1
Facts and Procedural History2
Sinnott and Thompson were students at Campbell University
(“Campbell”) in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
residence is in Jamaica, New York.
Sinnott’s primary residence is
Georgetown, Delaware. On January 13, 2008, Sinnott and Thompson were
drinking alcoholic beverages on Campbell’s campus in celebration of
Thompson’s birthday. Sinnott and Thompson then decided to leave campus
to get something to eat. They left in a vehicle owned by Pepper, with
Thompson brought suit through his Guardian Ad Litem, Kelly M. Nelville-Thompson.
The factual background is taken from the Superior Court decision made after oral
argument deciding the choice of law question in favor of applying Delaware law.
Sinnott driving and Thompson riding as a passenger. Thompson knew that
Sinnott had been drinking. As they were driving, a North Carolina police
officer observed them speeding at over 85 miles per hour. He activated his
lights and siren and followed the vehicle. The vehicle crossed the centerline
twice, finally entering a ditch. It then became airborne and overturned.
Before the vehicle came to rest, Thompson was ejected and landed on the
Sinnott was arrested for failing to stop for a patrolman’s lights and
siren, eluding an officer, and failing to stop at a stop sign. He was later
charged with being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident
and subsequently pled guilty to driving while impaired.
As a result of the collision, Thompson sustained a left subdural
hematoma and traumatic brain injury, among other injuries. Thompson
initially received treatment at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina
and later received treatment from multiple healthcare providers in New
On November 24, 2009, Thompson filed suit against Sinnott alleging
that Sinnott’s “negligent, reckless and willful conduct and drinking” resulted
in Thompson’s injuries. The complaint also alleged that Pepper was liable
as the owner of the vehicle under an agency or negligent entrustment theory.
The appellants answered Thompson’s complaint asserting thirteen
affirmative defenses, including contributory negligence.
filed a motion for summary judgment requesting that the Superior Court
apply North Carolina’s substantive law based on the most significant
relationship test. The appellants asserted that under North Carolina law, the
doctrine of contributory negligence applied and barred Thompson’s claim.
Thompson responded by arguing that the “most significant relationship test”
required an application of Delaware law, which applies the doctrine of
comparative negligence. The Superior Court held that Delaware law applied
to Thompson’s claims and denied the appellants’ motion for summary
Most Significant Relationship
We review the Superior Court’s grant or denial of summary judgment
de novo.3 This case presents a choice of law question. When conducting a
choice of law analysis, Delaware courts follow the “most significant
relationship test” in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (the
“Restatement”).4 Section 145(1) of the Restatement provides that the law of
the state that has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the
State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Patterson, 7 A.3d 454, 456 (Del. 2010).
Travelers Indem. Co. v. Lake, 594 A.2d 38, 46-47 (Del. 1991) (replacing the lex loci
delicti doctrine with the Restatement’s “most significant relationship test”).
parties under the principles stated in section 6 is the governing law.5 Section
6(2) provides that the following seven factors are relevant to the choice of
the needs of the interstate and international systems,
the relevant policies of the forum,
the relevant policies of other interested states and the
relative interests of those states in the determination of
the particular issue,
the protection of justified expectations,
the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,
certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and
ease in the determination and application of the law to be
Section 145(2) also instructs that when applying the section 6 factors,
courts should take into account the following four contacts:
the place where the injury occurred,
the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,
the domicile, residence, nationality, place of
incorporation and place of business of the parties, and
the place where the relationship, if any, between the
parties is centered. 7
The appellants contend that North Carolina law, and not Delaware
law, applies to Thompson’s claim. They argue that using the four contacts
in the Restatement section 145(2), North Carolina has the most significant
Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(1) (1971). Section 146 provides that in
a personal injury action the law of the state where the injury occurred should apply
“unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant
relationship under the principles stated in [section] 6 to the occurrence and the parties . . .
.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 146 (1971).
Id. at § 6(2).
Id. at § 145(2).
relationship because the injury occurred in North Carolina, the conduct
occurred in North Carolina, Thompson and Sinnott were college students in
North Carolina and were in the vehicle because of the contact in North
Carolina, and the only relationship between the parties developed in North
Thompson argues that Delaware has the predominant interest in
regulating the behavior that gave rise to the conduct that led to his injuries.
He asserts that the seven factors in the Restatement section 6(2) “most
significant relationship test” are based on the quality of the contacts with the
parties and not the quantity. Thompson further contends that Delaware’s
contacts are superior to North Carolina’s because Sinnott and Pepper are
both Delaware residents, Sinnott is a licensed driver in the state of Delaware,
and the vehicle that Sinnott was driving was registered and insured in
In holding that the Delaware law of comparative negligence applies to
Thompson’s claims, the Superior Court found Conlin v. Hutcheon8 to be
persuasive authority for that conclusion.9 In Conlin, the plaintiff, an Illinois
resident, filed suit in Colorado against the defendant, a Colorado resident,
Conlin v. Hutcheon, 560 F. Supp. 934 (D. Colo. 1983).
Thompson v. Sinnott, 2011 WL 1632344, at *3 (Del. Super. Apr. 26, 2011).
for injuries sustained in a one-car accident that occurred in Nebraska.10 Both
parties were students, residing temporarily in Nebraska, and the car that the
defendant was driving was registered and insured in Iowa.11 The court in
Conlin reasoned that the domicile and residence of the parties and the place
where the relationship is centered constituted the most significant contacts.12
The court also noted that Colorado had significant contacts because the
claim was filed in Colorado and the defendant was served in Colorado.13
Given these considerations, the court in Conlin determined that Colorado
law applied to the claim.
Other jurisdictions have held similarly and
determined that the place where the injury occurred is an inferior contact in
comparison to the other contacts listed in section 145(2) when applying the
Restatement section 6(2) principles.14
Conlin v. Hutcheon, 560 F.Supp. at 934-35.
Id. at 937.
See, e.g., Griffith v. White, 929 F. Supp. 755, 760-61 (D. Vt. 1986) (concluding that
Quebec’s status as the place of injury resulting from a one-car accident is not a
significant contact with regards to choice of law analysis and that the law of Vermont as
the state of defendant’s residence and the state in which the vehicle was registered and
insured, inter alia, applied to the plaintiff’s claim); see also, O’Connor v. O’Connor, 519
A.2d 13, 25-26 (Conn. 1986) (declining to apply law of foreign jurisdiction even though
accident and tortious conduct occurred there, because Connecticut’s interests in
regulating conduct of its domiciliaries, ensuring plaintiffs have access to full range of
remedies Connecticut law provides, and maintaining its public policy that seriously
injured person have access to courts were superior contacts); Maldonado v.
Lannefranque, 1998 WL 301190, at *3 (Conn. Super. May 27, 1998) (concluding New
Jersey law governed plaintiff’s claim even though injury and tortious conduct occurred in
Connecticut and following reasoning in O’Connor which “focuse[d] on the result of
In Travelers Indem. Co. v. Lake, we adopted the “most significant
relationship” test and concluded that Delaware law applied to plaintiff’s
claims.15 In that case, plaintiff brought suit to recover for an accident that
occurred in Quebec, Canada. At issue in Lake was a choice of law question
between applying Delaware law or Quebec law on the amount of damages a
Delaware resident could recover from a Delaware insurance carrier.
Although the injury occurred in Quebec, we explained:
[t]here is no compelling issue of Quebec public policy here.
The parties are not residents of Quebec. The truck Lake was
driving when the accident occurred was not registered in
Quebec. The only connection with Quebec is that the accident
In comparison, Delaware clearly has the “most significant
relationship” to the issues presented. Lake is a resident of
Travelers obviously conducts substantial
business here. The uninsured motorist coverage provision of
Lake’s policy arose out of Delaware law and involves issues
of vital importance to all Delaware citizens.16
reconciling competing state policies with regard to which contacts are significant”);
Judge v. Am. Motors Corp., 908 F.2d 1565, 1575 (11th Cir. 1990) (vacating district court
decision granting summary judgment to defendants based on Mexican law because
balance of competing policy interests of interested sovereigns weighed against applying
the law of Mexico, where conduct and injury occurred, in a wrongful death action filed in
Florida against defendants whose principal place of business was in Michigan).
Travelers Indem. Co. v. Lake, 594 A.2d at 47.
See id. at 48.
In our recent decision in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Patterson,17 we
again declined to apply the law of the state where the injury occurred under
section 146, in light of the contacts listed in section 145(2), as applied to the
policy principles in section 6(2).
Other Cases Distinguished
The appellants argue that our decision in Turner v. Lipschultz18 should
govern. Turner is distinguishable from the present case. In Turner, a New
Jersey resident, residing temporarily in Delaware, filed suit in a Delaware
court against Wilborn, also a New Jersey resident, and Lipschultz, a
Pennsylvania resident, for injuries sustained when Lipschultz’s truck
collided into Wilborn’s car, in which Turner was a passenger.19 The issue in
Turner related to the admissibility of evidence of special damages in a
Delaware court against a non-resident tortfeasor for injuries sustained in
Delaware.20 We applied the law of the state where the conduct and the
injuries occurred because the factual predicate of that case did not call for a
departure from section 146’s general directive.21
In addition, we gave
State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Patterson, 7 A.3d at 458-59 (allowing recovery of
uninsured motorist benefits under Delaware law for accident in New Jersey because
Delaware’s public policy interests outweighed New Jersey’s and therefore Delaware had
most significant relationship to issue).
Turner v. Lipschultz, 619 A.2d 912 (Del. 1992).
Id. at 913-14.
Id. at 915.
Id. at 915-16.
particular weight to the fact that the relationship between all three parties
was centered in Delaware because that is where the accident occurred, and
Delaware was the only forum in which plaintiff could file suit against both
The appellants also contend that Yoder v. Delmarva Power & Light
Co.23 is instructive. However, Yoder is also distinguishable. In that case, the
plaintiff was injured at his home in Maryland when a pole he was carrying
came into contact with an overhead power line owned and maintained by the
defendant, a Delaware corporation.24 The Superior Court rejected plaintiff’s
argument that defendant’s conduct occurred in Delaware and concluded that
the conduct giving rise to the injuries occurred in Maryland.25
Consequently, the Superior Court applied the law of Maryland, where the
Notwithstanding, the Superior Court concluded Delaware’s policy against a
cap on non-economic damages was superior to Maryland’s policy, which
limited non-economic awards.27 In consideration of these competing policy
Yoder v. Delmarva Power & Light Co., 976 A.2d 172 (Del. 2009) (affirming Superior
Court ruling on the basis of its well-reasoned decision).
Yoder v. Delmarva Power & Light Co., 2003 WL 26066796, at *1 (Del. Super. Dec.
Id. at *4.
Id. at *5
interests, the Superior Court concluded Delaware had the most significant
relationship to the damages issue and applied Delaware law to that issue.28
Delaware Law Applies
The appellants assert that North Carolina’s interest in regulating
drivers and accidents on its roadways makes North Carolina’s interests
superior to Delaware’s interests. In that regard, we conclude that North
Carolina’s interests are sufficiently protected by its ability to impose
criminal penalties for violating its motor vehicle laws. Adjudicating the
civil claims against Sinnott in a Delaware court based on Delaware law does
not infringe upon those interests, particularly where, as here, North
Carolina’s interests in regulating Sinnott’s conduct were vindicated when
Sinnott pled guilty to driving while impaired.
Thompson brought this action in the State of Delaware and “the
interest of the forum state in applying its law and policies to those who seek
relief in its courts is paramount.”29 Delaware law reflects a strong public
policy against contributory negligence as a complete bar to recovery in
Id. at *5.
Conlin v. Hutcheon, 560 F. Supp. at 937 (citing Sabell v. Pacific Intermountain
Express Co., 536 P.2d 1160, 1166 (Colo. App. 1975)); see also, Travelers Indem. Co. v.
Lake, 594 A.2d at 45 (explaining that public policy exception to lex loci rule allows court
to abandon application of another state’s law, when that law violates public policy of
Delaware applies the doctrine of comparative
negligence and reduces a plaintiff’s recovery based on the amount of
negligence attributed to the plaintiff. Accordingly, Delaware courts have
declined to apply the law of the state where the accident occurred when that
law “is clearly repugnant to the settled public policy of [Delaware] the
Sinnott is a Delaware citizen and Delaware has an overriding interest
in regulating the conduct of its citizens.
Delaware’s interests include
regulating the conduct of its licensed drivers and the vehicles that it has
registered and which are insured under its law. Accordingly, we hold with
regard to Thompson’s negligence claim against Sinnott, Delaware has the
most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the
section 6(2) policy factors after taking into consideration the section 145(2)
We now turn to the choice of law question as it relates to Thompson’s
claim against Pepper. We recently affirmed the Superior Court decision in
Henderson v. Your Kar Express Rentals, Inc.,32 a case also involving a
Del. Code. Ann. title 10, § 8132 (2011).
Travelers Indem. Co. v. Lake, 594 A.2d at 45 (citing Skillman v. Conner, 193 A. 563,
565 (Del. Super. 1937)).
Henderson v. Your Kar Exp. Rentals, Inc., 2009 WL 1900395 (Del. Super. Mar. 3,
choice of law issue as it related to a negligent entrustment claim.33 In that
case, a Delaware resident sued a Virginia car rental agency for negligent
entrustment because the agency leased a vehicle to the defendant, a Virginia
resident, who did not have a valid driver’s license.34 The defendant then
drove through Delaware in route to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, causing an
automobile accident in Delaware, in which plaintiffs were injured.35 In
deciding that the law of Virginia applied in Henderson, the Superior Court
explained that “[d]etermining the liability . . . for negligent entrustment on
the basis of the law of a far away state where an accident happens to occur
[Delaware] – as opposed to the law of the state where the entrustment
occurred [Virginia] – would place an intolerable burden on the interstate
system.”36 “[T]he most important function of choice-of-law rules is to make
the interstate and international systems work well.”37
Delaware has the most significant relationship as it relates to
Thompson’s claim against Pepper under the section 6(2) policy factors after
taking into consideration the section 145(2) contacts. The car that Sinnott
was driving was owned by Pepper and registered and insured in Delaware.
Henderson v. Your Kar Exp. Rentals, Inc., 2011 WL 4399969 (Del. Sept. 22, 2011).
Henderson v. Your Kar Exp. Rentals, Inc., 2009 WL 1900395, at *1.
Id. at *3.
Restatement § 6, cmt. d.
There is nothing in the record to indicate that Sinnott did not have Pepper’s
consent to take the vehicle out of Delaware. That entrustment in Delaware
ultimately led to his operation of the car in North Carolina. Applying the
Restatement principles here, as in Henderson, we hold that Delaware law
applies to Thompson’s negligent entrustment claim against Pepper.
The record reflects that Delaware has the most significant relationship
to the parties and the occurrence. Therefore, the Delaware doctrine of
comparative negligence applies to Thompson’s claims against both Sinnott
and Pepper. The judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed.