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Hughes v. Fetter

    Brief Fact Summary
    Hughes (Plaintiff), a resident of Illinois, was killed in an automobile accident in that state by Fetter (Defendant), a Wisconsin resident.  Plaintiff’s administrator brought a wrongful death suit against Defendant in Wisconsin, although Wisconsin law prohibited such suits for deaths outside Wisconsin.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    While the Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require the forum state to give force to a sister state’s law that conflicts with its own public policy, the forum state cannot deny recovery just because the act leading to the lawsuit occurred outside its borders.

    Facts
    While driving in Illinois, Fetter (Defendant) was involved in an automobile accident with Hughes (Plaintiff), who was killed.  Defendant was a resident of Wisconsin, and Hughes was a resident of Illinois.  Both states had wrongful death statutes, and Plaintiff’s administrator brought suit against Defendant in Wisconsin.  The suit was dismissed on the ground that the Wisconsin wrongful death statute prohibited recovery in cases where the death occurred outside Wisconsin.

    Issue
    Does the Full Faith and Credit Clause require the forum state to give force to a sister state’s law that conflicts with its own public policy?

    Held
    (Black, J.)  No.  However, in this case, no real conflict exists.  Both Wisconsin and Illinois recognize the wrongful death action.  The only reason for excluding this suit is that the death occurred in Illinois.  Both the defendant individual and the defendant insurance company are domiciled in Wisconsin, and therefore, there is sufficient contact for Wisconsin to provide a forum.  The exclusion cannot be justified on a blanket statutory policy of “forum non conveniens†since in many circumstances Wisconsin might be the only state where jurisdiction could be had over the defendant.  While this court must arbitrate true conflicts in public policies between states, Wisconsin has no public policy against this type of suit.  Reversed and remanded.

    Dissent
    (Frankfurter, J.)  Since service of process could be had by substituted service in Illinois and if the circumstances were reversed Illinois would refuse jurisdiction, there is no compelling reason to force Wisconsin to enforce Illinois law in its courts.

    Discussion
    Some commentators have felt this case was decided on Fourteenth Amendment equal protection grounds, instead of Full Faith and Credit.  Application of the similar law in Illinois was later denied enforcement in another suit involving an airplane crash in Utah.  The decision was rested on the same arguments as the principal case.  Where the facts supported the decision, individual cases of “forum non conveniens†dismissals have been upheld.


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