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