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May, 2016
High court finds no conflict in case involving conflict of laws issue
by Andrew Bergh

Conflict of laws principles don’t come into play very often in garden variety tort cases. But when they do, you had better do your homework – lest you get tripped up like the trial court and appeals court in Woodward v. Taylor, 184 Wn.2d 911 (2016). In that case, the seemingly simple issue pertained to whether the applicable statute of limitations was dictated by Washington or Idaho law.

Woodward arose from a solo car crash that took place on March 27, 2011.

Following a trip to Nevada, Ava Taylor and her three passengers were driving home to Washington. While passing through Idaho in the early morning hours, the roadway was slick with ice, and snow was visibly present on the side of the road. Despite these road conditions, Taylor set her cruise control to 82 mph, exceeding Idaho’s legal speed limit by seven mph.

At approximately 2:30 a.m., Taylor lost control of her car and a rollover accident ensued. One of her passengers, Claire Woodward, who was fast asleep in the back seat while wearing a seatbelt, was seriously hurt. Her injuries included a “complex comminuted fracture” of her neck.

Two quick asides. First of all, unlike Washington’s three-year statute, Idaho has a two-year statute of limitations in tort actions. Second, RCW 4.18.020(1)(a) specifically provides that if a claim is “substantively based” on the law of another state, then the limitation period of that state applies to the claim. (The caption for this statute, though not part of the law, reads “Conflict of Laws—Limitation Periods.”)

For unclear reasons, Woodward didn’t file an Idaho lawsuit within two years of the accident. Instead, on May 9, 2013, she sued Taylor for damages in King County Superior Court. Her lone allegation on liability? That Taylor had negligently driven her car too fast for the conditions of the roadway at the time and place in question. Her complaint did not specifically allege that Taylor had violated Idaho’s speeding statute.

Taylor later moved to dismiss on the pleadings, arguing that Woodward’s claims were time-barred under Idaho’s shorter limitation period.

The CR 12(b)(6) motion was ultimately granted by the trial court, who, instead of accepting the negligence claim as pleaded in the complaint, construed it as an allegation by the plaintiff that Taylor had violated Idaho’s speed limit statute. Moreover, the trial court never evaluated whether any conflict actually existed between the substantive law of Washington and Idaho (as opposed to a procedural rule like a statutory time limitation). Instead, the trial court interpreted Ellis v. Barto, 82 Wn. App.454 (1996), to say that whenever a negligence action is “based upon the rules of the road,” the action – regardless of whether any conflict of law issue exists – is necessarily subject to the law of the state where the accident occurred. On this basis, the trial court held that since Idaho’s substantive law applied to the case, its two-year statute of limitations also had to be used as required by RCW 4.18.020(1)(a).

After Woodward timely appealed, the Court of Appeals (Division One) affirmed the dismissal in a published opinion. See Woodward v. Taylor, 185 Wn. App. 1 (2014).

On the one hand, just like the trial court, Division One never analyzed whether a conflict actually existed between the substantive law of Washington and Idaho. Apparently, it was just an assumed fact. Instead, the Court of Appeals applied the “most significant relationship” test to determine which state’s substantive law applied to Woodward’s claim. Likewise relying on Ellis v. Barto, supra, Division One said the state in which the accident occurred generally has the greater interest in applying its law when the action is based on one or more violations of its rules of the road. Since in Woodward’s case that state was Idaho, the Court of Appeals held that Idaho’s substantive law and statute of limitations applied – and that consequently, the plaintiff’s claim had been properly dismissed.

After the usual suspenseful wait, Woodward received encouraging news: Her petition for review was granted by our state Supreme Court.

But the real good news arrived in January 2016. That’s when our high court reversed the dismissal order and reinstated Woodward’s claim by a unanimous 9-0 margin. The concise and straightforward opinion was authored by Justice Charlie Wiggins.

As explained by our high court, conflict of laws principles in tort cases are well-established in Washington:

When a party raises a conflict of law issue in a personal injury case, we apply the following analytical framework to determine which law applies: (1) identify an actual conflict of substantive law; (2) if there is an actual conflict of substantive law, apply the most significant relationship test to determine which state’s substantive law applies to the case, or, if there is no actual conflict, apply the presumptive law of the forum; (3) then, if applicable, apply the chosen substantive law’s statute of limitations according to RCW 4.18.020.

As the justices further observed, once an actual conflict of law has been identified, Washington courts use the two-part test set forth in Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) §§ 6,145, and 146, to determine which state has the most significant relationship. Briefly, under the first part of the test, the court should employ the relevant Restatement factors to evaluate the contacts each “interested jurisdiction” has with the parties and the occurrence at issue. Next, by applying the factors specifically described in Restatement § 6, the court should evaluate the various interests and policies of each interested jurisdiction.

But let’s not dwell too long on the most significant relationship test, given how the threshold issue is whether a “conflict of substantive law” actually exists. As for this part of the analytical framework, our high court emphasized the following:

An actual conflict of law exists where the result of an issue is different under the laws of the interested states.

Under well-settled precedent, Washington courts should not consider differences between two states’ statutes of limitations when choosing the applicable law.

If no conflict actually exists, then the local law of the forum applies – and the court doesn’t even reach the most significant relationship test.

As mentioned above, neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals had analyzed whether a conflict between the laws of Washington and Idaho actually existed under the facts pleaded by Woodward. Rather, this appears to have either been assumed or glossed over altogether by the lower courts. Not making the same mistake, our high court methodically evaluated whether Taylor had satisfied this initial threshold.

To cut to the chase, the justices concluded there was no actual conflict between the laws of Washington and Idaho relevant to Woodward’s claim.

First of all, the high court said there was no actual conflict between Washington and Idaho negligence law because both states apply the same standard of care. (Stripped to their essence, both states employ a standard imposing a duty of reasonable care.) Since both states use the same standard of care, said the justices, the outcome as to whether Taylor drove negligently would be the same in both states.

Second, the Woodward court found no actual conflict between the relevant speed laws of Washington and Idaho. This is not to say there are no differences, however, given how Washington sets the maximum speed limit on state highways at 60 mph while Idaho sets it at 75 mph. (If certain conditions are met, both states let their respective transportation departments slightly increase the maximum speed limit to either 75 mph (Washington) or 80 mph (Idaho).) This difference essentially amounted to a big “so what,” though, since Woodward’s negligence claim wasn’t based on a violation of Idaho’s maximum speed statute. Instead, the gravamen of her claim was that Taylor had negligently driven too fast when confronted with hazardous road conditions. Since this rule of the road is the same in Washington and Idaho, said the justices, the result of Woodward’s claim would be the same in either state.

In reaching this conclusion, the high court found Ellis v. Barto, supra, distinguishable:

Ellis fails to provide helpful guidance for our decision in this case; unlike Ellis, this case presents no actual conflict of law. More importantly, Taylor’s reading of Ellis overemphasizes the importance of the location of the accident to the exclusion of the other factors of the most significant relationship test from the Restatement. Ellis does not stand for the proposition that the law of the state where an accident occurred presumptively applies. Our conflict of laws analysis incorporates the Restatement factors; as a factors test, each case is unique in the set of facts that it presents.

Last but not least, the justices noted how there was no actual conflict between the comparative fault laws of Washington and Idaho. This is not to say both states’ comparative fault laws are the same. For example, unlike Washington, an Idaho plaintiff who was more at fault for the accident than the defendant is barred from recovering anything from the defendant. Under the facts pleaded by Woodward, however, it was “almost inconceivable,” said the justices, that a jury could find her more at fault than Taylor. That being the case, the high court concluded that the result under either state’s comparative fault laws would be the same.

Having found no actual conflict between the laws of Washington and Idaho, the Woodward court ruled that the most significant relationship test didn’t even come into play; that Washington’s substantive law therefore applied; and that, in turn, Washington’s statute of limitations also applied. So since Woodward had filed suit within three years of the accident, her King County action was timely.

In a footnote, Justice Wiggins commented on how Woodward – even if the most significant relationship test were applied in her case – would have a “strong argument” that Washington law applied to her claim. For more information, please see the footnote.

As I said at the outset, conflict of laws issues rarely arise in Washington tort cases. If and when one potentially pops up in one of your clients’ cases, however, Woodward v. Taylor would be a good starting point for your research and analysis. Moreover, as Woodward’s counsel presumably did, you should be mindful of potential conflict of laws issues early on, especially when drafting a complaint on your client’s behalf.

Andrew Bergh, WSTLA EAGLE member, former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, now limits his practice to plaintiff's personal injury cases, including professional liability and insurance bad faith.