HILL v. County of Solano, Movant and Appellant.

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Court of Appeal, First District, Division 3, California.

Norman HILL, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Terryl HILL, Defendant and Respondent, County of Solano, Movant and Appellant.

AO30992.

Decided: July 27, 1987

G. Todd Withy, Glenn M. Clark, Polly Levin, Withy, Miller, Clark, Levin & Calvert, Berkeley, for plaintiff and appellant. George E. Murphy, Donald S. Walter, Bolling, Walter & Gawthorp, Sacramento, for defendant and respondent. John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Josanna Berkow, Thomas A. Brady, Gloria F. DeHart, Deputy Attys. Gen., San Francisco, for movant and appellant.

This is a personal injury action brought by plaintiff Norman Hill against his former spouse, defendant Terryl Hill.   The action stems from a single car accident which took place on August 27, 1979, in British Columbia, Canada.   At the time of the accident, the couple was married and in transit together in defendant's car.   Defendant was driving the car while plaintiff was a passenger.   Plaintiff, who sustained serious injuries as a result of the accident, filed this lawsuit in Solano County claiming that the accident and his injuries were the result of defendant's negligence.   A jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff awarding him $2.4 million in damages.   However, on motion by defendant, the trial court vacated the verdict and entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in defendant's favor.   Plaintiff appeals from that judgment.

The case presents a choice of law issue.   At the time of the accident, British Columbia had an interspousal immunity law which barred tort actions between spouses.1  California, meanwhile, abrogated its interspousal immunity law in 1962.  (Klein v. Klein (1962) 58 Cal.2d 692, 26 Cal.Rptr. 102, 376 P.2d 70.)   The issue thus presented is:  which law should govern the case, British Columbia or California?   We have determined that California law should govern and, accordingly, reverse the judgment and reinstate the verdict in favor of plaintiff.

I

Conflicting evidence of the respective domiciles of the parties at the time of the accident was presented at trial.   As this is one of the factors to be considered in a conflict of laws analysis, a summary of this evidence in conjunction with the procedural history of the case follows.

Plaintiff Norman Hill was born and raised in Michigan.   Following high school, he enlisted in the army and was stationed in Germany.   Upon release from the army, plaintiff returned to Michigan briefly where he worked and went to school.   Between July 1967 and the fall of 1969, plaintiff moved around a bit, trying different jobs.   He spent some time in Alaska, then California, then Michigan again.   Finally, he wound up homesteading some property in Alaska.   During this period, he spent the winter months in California.

Homesteading in Alaska, however, did not work out for plaintiff, and he moved to California.   He stayed in California from September of 1969 to May of 1970.   In the spring of 1970 he took up homesteading again, this time in British Columbia.

Between 1970 and the time of the accident in 1979, plaintiff embarked on various business ventures in British Columbia.   In furtherance of these ventures, plaintiff applied for and was granted both land immigrant status and Canadian citizenship, meanwhile retaining his American citizenship.   During this period, plaintiff often returned to California for the Christmas season.   At the time of the accident, plaintiff who, by then, was 37 years old, owned a deep-sea fishing boat which was moored along the coast of British Columbia, and had applied for a homestead lease on 50 acres of land in Bella Coola, British Columbia.   He had plans to develop the site into the first of a series of health centers.   He lived on the boat that he owned or in temporary structures he had constructed on the property in Bella Coola.   In court documents filed before the accident, plaintiff listed Canada as his domicile.

Defendant Terryl Hill was raised in Solano County, California.   She attended elementary school, high school and junior college there.   Between 1967 and 1975, defendant worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines, living at various locations including Seattle, Washington;  the island of Kauai in Hawaii;  and at her parents' home in Solano County.   During December of 1975 and the early part of 1976 while she was living at her parent's home and plaintiff was spending some time in California, their relationship became serious and marriage plans were discussed.

Between January 1976 and July 1979, defendant alternated living with plaintiff in British Columbia and living on her own in the United States.   During the latter part of this period, while living in La Jolla, California, defendant purchased a Honda civic, the car which was later involved in the accident.   She registered the car in California.   Around this time, defendant also renewed her California driver's license.   On the license, she listed her parents' address in Solano County as her own.

On July 5, 1979, plaintiff and defendant were married in British Columbia.   Less than two months later, the accident which is the subject of the instant lawsuit occurred.   According to testimony at trial, the couple was traveling the main highway between Williams Lake and Bella Coola, British Columbia, at the time of the accident.   The highway is a gravel based highway.   Defendant, who was at the wheel, had been driving for five hours.   The accident occurred when defendant made a sharp turn and lost control of the car.   The car sommersaulted off the side of the road, landing on its roof.   The roof caved in.   Defendant was thrown into the back seat of the car while plaintiff was pinned inside the right front passenger compartment.   Plaintiff's neck was broken resulting in paralysis in his arms and legs.

Nine months after the accident, the couple separated.   Plaintiff moved to Hawaii.   Defendant and the couple's six-month-old son, Ian Hill, moved in temporarily with defendant's mother in Solano County and have continued to live in the county since that time.   Upon her arrival in California, defendant applied for welfare assistance from the county.

On August 26, 1980, plaintiff filed the instant action against defendant claiming that the accident and his injuries were the result of defendant's negligence.   In between the filing of the complaint and the time of trial, defendant filed for and was granted a dissolution of the marriage in Solano County.   The dissolution became final on April 21, 1982.   Thereafter, defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the action was barred by a British Columbia interspousal immunity law.   The motion was denied, and the case proceeded to trial on October 31, 1984.

On the first day of trial, Solano County filed a motion to intervene and notice of a lien seeking to recover past and future child support payments from any damages awarded plaintiff.

Following trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding that defendant had been negligent at the time of the accident, thereby proximately causing plaintiff's injuries.   The jury further found that plaintiff had suffered $2.4 million in damages, $112,500 of which was for loss of past income and $318,825 of which was for loss of future income.   It also determined that plaintiff was a domiciliary of British Columbia at the time of the accident but that defendant was not.

At the same time that defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict was granted on the basis of the British Columbia interspousal immunity law, Solano County's motion to intervene was denied.   Both plaintiff and Solano County appeal.

II

Questions of choice of law are determined in California by the “governmental interest analysis approach.”   In the landmark case of Reich v. Purcell (1967) 67 Cal.2d 551, 63 Cal.Rptr. 31, 432 P.2d 727, our Supreme Court renounced the prior rule that in tort actions the law of the place of the wrong was the applicable law in a California forum regardless of the issues before the court.   The high court adopted in its place a rule requiring an analysis of the respective interests of the states involved, the objective of which is “to find the proper law to apply based upon the interests of the litigants and the involved states.”  (Id., at p. 553, 63 Cal.Rptr. 31, 432 P.2d 727.)

The matter presently before us involves two states or governments:  California—the forum, the place of defendant's domicile both presently and at the time of the accident; 2  the place in which defendant filed for and obtained a dissolution of marriage with continuing jurisdiction over matters of child support, the place from which defendant currently receives welfare assistance;  and British Columbia, Canada—the place of the wrong, the place of plaintiff's domicile at the time of the accident, and the place where the parties were married.

The fact that two states are involved, however, does not in itself indicate that there is a “conflict of laws” or “choice of law” problem.   There is obviously no problem where the laws of the states are identical.  (Hurtado v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 574, 580, 114 Cal.Rptr. 106, 522 P.2d 666.)   Here, on the other hand, the laws of British Columbia and California were not identical at the time of the accident.   British Columbia law barred tort actions between spouses.   California, meanwhile, abrogated its own interspousal immunity law in 1962, thus allowing for such actions between spouses.

Nonetheless, “[a]lthough the two potentially concerned states have different laws, there is still no problem in choosing the applicable rule of law where only one of the states has an interest in having its law applied․  [Citations.]  ‘When one of two states related to a case has a legitimate interest in the application of its laws and policy and the other has none, there is no real problem;  clearly the law of the interested state should be applied.’  [Citation.]”  (Hurtado v. Superior Court, supra, 11 Cal.3d at p. 580, 114 Cal.Rptr. 106, 522 P.2d 666, fn. omitted.)

In examining the governmental policy underlying British Columbia's interspousal immunity law, we have determined that that government does not have a “legitimate” interest in having its law applied to this case.   The reasons for this are several.   First of all, since this lawsuit was initiated, British Columbia has followed the lead of numerous other jurisdictions and abolished its interspousal immunity law.   The Law Reform Commission of British Columbia, which recommended repeal of the law, deemed it to be “anachronistic, complex and riddled with anomalies.”  (Report on Interspousal Immunity in Tort (1983) Law Reform Commission of British Columbia, p. 10.) 3  In analyzing the theoretical underpinnings of the law (i.e., preserving domestic harmony, preventing the wrongdoer from benefitting from his or her own wrongful conduct, preventing collusive and fraudulent tort claims by married couples, and avoiding an increase in insurance premiums which might result otherwise), the commission found them to be no longer valid or in “line with the expectations of married persons today.”  (Id., at p. 17.)   In arriving at this point in the development of the law, British Columbia's policy relative to interspousal tort claims now mirrors that of California.   That British Columbia's law would evolve to this point, was evident even as the instant case went to trial.   It would be an anomaly, indeed, for us to hold that there is a “true” conflict of laws under these circumstances.   While the change in British Columbia law was given only prospective effect, it cannot be said that application of California law here would offend that government's current public policy.  (See American Bank of Commerce v. Corondoni (1985) 169 Cal.App.3d 368, 372–373, 215 Cal.Rptr. 331.)

Reference to the current status of the law is permissible under California's conflict of laws rules.   Even when a law is still on the books, the courts will examine it to determine if it is in keeping with the mainstream of thinking.  “[T]he current status of a statute is an important factor to be considered in a determination of comparative impairment:  the policy underlying a jurisdiction's law may be deemed ‘attenuated and anachronistic and properly ․ be limited to domestic occurrences in the event of [a multistate] clash of interests.’  [Citation.]”  (Offshore Rental Co. v. Continental Oil Co. (1978) 22 Cal.3d 157, 166, 148 Cal.Rptr. 867, 583 P.2d 721.)

Another factor mitigating against the finding of any “legitimate” interest on the part of British Columbia in the application of its interspousal immunity law to the instant case, is the fact that the parties' marital relationship was officially terminated prior to trial.   Under British Columbia law, interspousal immunity for torts committed during the marriage ends once the marriage is dissolved.  (Landstrom v. Ringrose (1981) 121 D.L.R.3d 78;  Mendes v. Ferreira (1981) 4 W.W.R. 276;  Imperadeiro v. Imperadeiro (1977) 76 D.L.R.3d 765.)   British Columbia's interest in having the subject law applied, thus, ends at the same time.

Finally, one more factor negating any claim that British Columbia has a strong interest here, is the fact that neither party is presently domiciled in that province nor has been for some time.   Plaintiff testified that he left Canada in October 1980 and has been living in Hawaii ever since.   Defendant and the couple's six-month-old son, meanwhile, left British Columbia in November 1980 and have remained in Solano County since that time.   Conflict of law rules “designed to further the policies and interests of domiciliary states” are inapplicable under these circumstances.  (Purcell v. Kapelski (3d Cir.1971) 444 F.2d 380, 383, fn. 7;  see also United States v. Moore (3d Cir.1971) 444 F.2d 475;  American Bank of Commerce v. Corondoni, supra, 169 Cal.App.3d at p. 373, 215 Cal.Rptr. 331.)

In holding that British Columbia has no “legitimate” interest in having its interspousal immunity law applied to the instant case, it might well be asked whether California has any genuine interest in having its law applied.   The answer is California does have a valid interest.   First, it has an interest as the forum state.  “As the forum, California ‘can only apply its own law’ [citation].  When the forum undertakes to resolve a choice-of-law problem presented to it by the litigants, it does not choose between foreign law and its own law, but selects the appropriate rule of decision for the forum to apply as its law to the case before it.  [Citation.]  Therefore, when the forum state undertakes its ‘search to find the proper law to apply based upon the interests of the litigants and the involved states' [citation], it is understood that ‘[n]ormally, even in cases involving foreign elements, the court should be expected, as a matter of course, to apply the rule of decision found in the law of the forum.’  [Citation.]  ‘Only “when it is suggested that the law of a foreign state should furnish the rule of decision” must the forum determine the governmental policy of its own and the suggested foreign laws, preparatory to assessing whether either or both states have an interest in applying their policy to the case.’  [Citation.]  In short, generally speaking the forum will apply its own rule of decision unless a party litigant timely invokes the law of a foreign state.   In such event he must demonstrate that the latter rule of decision will further the interest of the foreign state and therefore that it is an appropriate one for the forum to apply to the case before it.  [Citations.]”  (Hurtado v. Superior Court, supra, 11 Cal.3d at p. 581, 114 Cal.Rptr. 106, 522 P.2d 666.)   In the case at bar, defendant has failed to demonstrate that application of British Columbia's interspousal immunity law in this instance will further the interest of that foreign state.   Accordingly, the law of California as the forum state should govern.  (Id., at pp. 581–582, 114 Cal.Rptr. 106, 522 P.2d 666.)

Further, inasmuch as California law favors the compensation of victims, it has a valid interest in the case.   Generally speaking, the rule in this state is that “in the absence of statute or some compelling reason of public policy, where there is negligence proximately causing an injury, there should be liability.”  (Self v. Self (1962) 58 Cal.2d 683, 689, 26 Cal.Rptr. 97, 376 P.2d 65.)   While California's law favoring compensation to victims would seem to favor plaintiff, a nondomiciliary, the policy underlying that law is a strong one which presumably advances more than local interests.   A state interest in justice is not only a “self-interest in and on behalf of its residents.   Instead, a forum court is also ‘interested’ in doing justice to a foreign [party]․”  (Scoles & Hay, Conflict of Laws (1984) § 17.16, p. 578.)  “ ‘[Governmental interest] analysis does not imply the ruthless pursuit of self-interest by the states'․  ‘[T]here is no need to exclude the possibility of rational altruism ․ regardless of who the victim is.’ ”   (Op. cit. supra, at pp. 578–579, fn. omitted.)

Based on the above analysis, we hold that California law is the appropriate law to be applied in this instance.   In view of our holding, we need not address other issues raised by plaintiff.

III **

IV

We reverse the order granting defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and the judgment entered thereon.   We reinstate the jury's verdict in favor of plaintiff and direct the trial court to enter judgment in accordance with the verdict.   Plaintiff is entitled to his costs on appeal.

The order denying the Solano County's motion to intervene is affirmed.

FOOTNOTES

1.   British Columbia's interspousal immunity law was formerly contained within that province's Married Woman's Property Act, which states:  “(1) Every married woman shall have in her own name against all persons, including her husband, the same remedies for the protection and security of her own separate property as if the property belonged to her as a single woman․  [¶] (3) Except as aforesaid, no husband or wife is entitled to sue the other for a tort.”  (Married Woman's Property Act, R.S.B.C.1979, ch. 252, § 10.)The law was repealed on December 2, 1985, following entry of judgment in the instant case.  (See British Columbia Charter of Rights Amendments Act, 1985, § 80, p. 11.)   This court granted plaintiff's motion to take judicial notice of the repealing law.

2.   Evidence indicates that while defendant has assumed numerous residences in the past, California is the place she consistently returns to as her home base.   This fact is reflected by defendant's movements both before and after she met plaintiff, as well as her movements since the parties' separation.   Adding to the strength of this evidence is the fact that she renewed her California driver's license, listing her parents' address in Solano County as her own.   She also purchased and registered a car in California.   Generally speaking, the question of whether or not a person is domiciled in a certain place is a mixed one of law and fact.   Where the question has been determined by the trial court on conflicting evidence, its findings will not be disturbed on appeal.  (Kopasz v. Kopasz (1951) 107 Cal.App.2d 308, 237 P.2d 284.)

3.   Plaintiff's request that this court take judicial notice of the commission's report has been granted.   The law of British Columbia may be ascertained by judicial notice.  (Evid.Code, §§ 452, subd. (f), 454.)   Such notice is available in the trial court and, independently, in this court (Evid.Code, § 459).  “In determining foreign law by judicial notice this court can consult or use ‘[a]ny source of pertinent information, including the advice of persons learned in the subject matter ․ whether or not furnished by a party’ (Evid.Code, § 454, subd. (a)), provided that ‘[w]here the subject of judicial notice is the law of an organization of nations, a foreign nation, or a public entity in a foreign nation and the court resorts to the advice of persons learned in the subject matter, such advice, if not received in open court, shall be in writing.’  (Evid.Code, § 454, subd. (b).)”  (Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft v. Superior Court (1981) 123 Cal.App.3d 840, 852, 176 Cal.Rptr. 874.)

FOOTNOTE.   Part III of this opinion is not certified for publication. (See fn. *, ante.)

MERRILL, Associate Justice.

WHITE, P.J., and BARRY–DEAL, J., concur.