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Bernhard v. Harrah’s Club

Citation. Bernhard v. Harrah’s Club, 16 Cal. 3d 313, 546 P.2d 719, 128 Cal. Rptr. 215.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Two Californians went to Harrah’s Club (Defendant), a Nevada corporation, where they became intoxicated and then collided with a motorcycle driven by Bernhard (Plaintiff), in California.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A conflict in the choice of law governing a tort action requires an analysis of the particular interests of the states involved, in order to determine the law that most appropriately applies to the issue involved.


Bernhard (Plaintiff) brought an action in California for damages for personal injuries against Harrah’s Club (Defendant), a Nevada corporation.  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant, which owned and operated gabling and drinking establishments in Nevada, solicited business in California, knowing that many Californians would use the highways in route to and from Harrah’s Club (Defendant).  In response to the Defendant’s advertisements, two Californians patronized the establishment, became obviously intoxicated and, on their way home, one of the intoxicated Californians was driving a car that collided with a motorcycle driven by Bernhard (Plaintiff), also a California resident, who suffered severe injuries.  Defendant demurred to Plaintiff’s complaint on the ground that Nevada law gave no right to recover against a bar keeper for injuries caused by the selling of alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person and that Nevada law governed since Plaintiff’s alleged tort had been committed in Nevada.  The trial court sustained the demurrer and Bernhard (Plaintiff) appealed.


Does a conflict in the choice of law governing a tort action require an analysis of the particular interests of the states involved, in order to determine the law that most appropriately applies to the issue involved?


(Sullivan, J.)  Yes.  As made clear by this court on other occasions, it no longer adheres to the rule that the law of the place where the wrong took place is applicable in a California forum regardless of the issues before the court.  Instead, a rule has been adopted requiring an analysis of the particular interests of the states involved, the objective of which is to determine the most appropriate law applicable to the issue involved.  The laws of California and Nevada that apply to the issue involved are not identical.  California imposes liability on bar keepers in this state for conduct as alleged in this case, and Nevada does not.  Harrah’s Club argues that Nevada has a definite interest in having its rule of decision applied in this case so as to protect its resident bar keepers from being subjected to a civil liability which Nevada has not imposed either by legislative enactment or decisional law.  Bernhard (Plaintiff), on the other hand, points out that California has an interest in protecting members of the general public from injuries to person and damage to property resulting from the excessive use of intoxicating liquor.  Therefore, since this case involved a California resident injured in this state by intoxicated drivers and a Nevada resident bar keeper, it is clear that each state has an interest in the application of its particular laws.  In addition, this court finds that the act of selling alcoholic beverages to obviously intoxicated persons is already proscribed in Nevada, which subjects tavern keepers to criminal penalties.  Therefore, the application of the California rule of civil liability would not impose an entirely new duty requiring the ability to differentiate between California residents and other patrons.  The conclusion is that California has an important interest in applying its law, which would be more significantly impaired if such a rule were not applied.  The judgment is reversed and the case remanded.


To reach its decision the court also used the comparative impairment approach to the resolution of conflicts.  This approach seeks to determine which state’s interest would be more impaired if its policy were subordinated to the policy of the other state.  The court does not weigh the conflicting governmental interests in the sense of determining which conflicting law expressed the better or the worthier social policy on the specific issue.

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