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In re Air Crash Disaster Near Chicago, Illinois on May 25, 1979

    Brief Fact Summary
    After the crash of a DC-10 jet airplane built by McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC) (Defendant), the relatives of the deceased passengers were awarded punitive damages and compensatory damages, in suits alleging wrongful death.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    In applying choice of law rules, dépeçage, the process of applying rules of different states on the basis of the precise issue involved, is appropriate.

    Facts
    After the airplane crash near Chicago, relatives of the 271 passengers who died were awarded compensatory and punitive damages, based on choice of law rules where the actions had originally been filed.  MDC (Defendant) and American Airlines (Defendant) moved to strike the claims of punitive damages.  The court allowed the motions to strike punitive damages claims against American (Defendant) but not against MDC (Defendant).  MDC (Defendant) appealed.

    Issue
    In applying choice of law rules, is dépeçage, the process of applying rules of different states on the basis of the precise issue involved, appropriate?

    Held
    (Sprecher, J.)  Yes.  In applying choice of law rules, dépeçage, the process of applying rules of different states on the basis of the precise issue involved, is appropriate.  The application of choice of law rules is not a mechanical process.  Each state’s interest in the specific question of punitive damages must be examined.  In this case, Illinois, the place of injury does not allow damages, Missouri, MDC’s (Defendant) principal place of business, does allow punitive damages, but California, place of MDC’s (Defendant) conduct, does not.  American Airlines (Defendant) has two principal places of business; one allows punitive damages, while the other does not.  For the actions filed in Illinois, the application of the most significant relationship test leads to the use of Illinois law since it was the place of the injury.  California follows the comparative impairment approach to questions on choice of law.  California has a strong public policy against punitive damages for wrongful death.  All the motions to strike should have been granted.  Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

    Discussion
    The court considered several states’ laws.  In addition to Illinois, California and New York, the laws of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Michigan were considered.  The court in this case agreed with the district court that federal regulations should be enacted regarding tort liability.


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