Gnatkiv v. Machkur (CA1 5/24/16)

Applying the doctrine of comity and illustrating once again that an appellate court can affirm for any reason.

Plaintiff and Defendant were truckers working for a New Jersey company. While traveling together, Defendant driving, they were injured in an accident in Arizona. Both applied for and received workers comp in New Jersey. Plaintiff then sued Defendant in Arizona; Defendant’s whereabouts were unknown, he was served by publication, and his liability insurer intervened on his behalf. The insurer moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Under the law of either state workers comp would be an exclusive remedy for an employee and the court concluded that New Jersey’s determination that Plaintiff was an employee (which in that state he had alleged and admitted) was res judicata. Plaintiff appeals.

The Court of Appeals affirms, though it changes the reasoning. Res judicata can’t apply because the parties weren’t the same; neither Defendant nor his liability carrier were parties to Plaintiff’s workers comp claim. The court instead applies the doctrine of comity, which is that “courts of one state . . . will give effect to the laws and judicial decisions of another state . . . , not as a matter of obligation, but out of deference and mutual respect.” The trial court may therefore, in its discretion, “accord the laws and decisions of another state ‘presumptive validity, subject to rebuttal’.”

Plaintiff argued that he was really an independent contractor – that New Jersey had made a “mistake” – but he had applied for workers comp, had done nothing to set aside the award, and hadn’t given the money back. “No compelling reason exists not to defer to . . . New Jersey.” Plaintiff also argued that this was a question of fact that prevented summary judgment but “[i]f materials submitted to a trial court raised genuine issues of material fact concerning subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court may nonetheless determine them” if they are not intertwined with the merits.

(Opinion: Gnatkiv v. Machkur)