California Supreme Court Rules for Shook Client in Choice of Law Appeal

The California Supreme Court reversed an intermediate appellate court decision that had overturned a verdict in favor of Shook client Los Angeles Truck Centers, LLC, finding that the trial court did not err when it declined to reconsider a choice-of-law ruling that led to the case being decided under Indiana law. Shook Partners Janet Hickson, Frank Rothrock and Kevin Underhill represented Los Angeles Truck Centers (known as Buswest) in the matter; Underhill argued the matter to the Supreme Court. 

In 2010, a tour bus en route to the Grand Canyon rolled over twice, killing two passengers and injuring the other eight. There was no dispute that the driver was at fault, and he and the tour company settled with the plaintiffs in 2012. The main theories of the plaintiffs’ action against the bus manufacturer, Forest River, Inc. (known as Starcraft), and retailer Buswest were that the bus was negligently designed and manufactured and that Buswest chose to order the bus without seat belts. 

In 2013, the trial court applied the governmental interest test set forth in Reich v. Purcell, 67 Cal.2d. 551 (1967), and concluded that because Starcraft was based in Indiana, that state’s law would apply. A few months later, Buswest settled with plaintiffs, but the trial court denied multiple plaintiffs’ motions to reconsider the original choice-of-law ruling. As the trial judge noted, a choice-of-law determination “should not change at the last hour before trial because of settlement of certain parties. The parties have prepared for trial based on a definitive ruling . . . The happenstance of a change in parties should not affect the law to be applied.” After a two-week trial in 2015, the jury ruled 10-2 in favor of Buswest. 

The Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the trial court “should have fully reconsidered” the choice-of-law ruling once Starcraft was dismissed from the case. It then remanded for a new trial under California product liability law. 

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the “circumstances in which trial courts are required to revisit a choice of law determination, if any, should be the exception and not the rule,” and ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that their decision to accept a settlement offer from Starcraft was such an exceptional circumstance.  

The case is Chen v. Los Angeles Truck Centers, LLC, No. S240245 (Cal., July 22, 2019).