In Standard Fire Insurance Company v. Ford Motor Company, the Sixth Circuit decided that a product liability action could not be brought against Ford, but the decision turned on the choice of law analysis. The question was whether to apply Tennessee law (whose statute of repose would bar the claim) or that of Michigan. The suit was filed in Michigan, and the Sixth Circuit recognized at the outset of its opinion that the case “offers the opportunity to resolve an apparent split of authority between the Sixth Circuit and the Michigan Court of Appeals as to how the Michigan choice of law rules are to be applied.” The case illustrates the challenges in determining state law in the absence of a definitive state supreme court decision. The Sixth Circuit had handed down a decision in 1990 essentially predicting how the Michigan Supreme Court would resolve a related choice of law question. Subsequent to that, the Michigan Supreme Court had issued an opinion that addressed certain choice of law issues, and Michigan appellate courts had also weighed in on the matter. The Court appreciated some tension between the Sixth Circuit’s prior decision and the more recent Michigan ones, and ultimately concluded that it was bound to follow the latter. At the same time, it recognized that Michigan’s choice of law rules are “still evolving,” and of course the Michigan Supreme Court could ultimately decide the matter more directly. But, in the absence of specific guidance from the state supreme court, “we are obligated follow published intermediate state appellate court decisions unless we are convinced that the highest court would decide differently.” (As an aside, Judge McKeague, who authored the opinion, is from Michigan).
So this opinion is interesting, and potentially significant, for two separate reasons. First, it sheds light on the analysis of how the Sixth Circuit will approach a determination of state law where state law might be evolving. If this case is any indication, it appears that the Court will give more weight to recent state appellate decisions rather than older Sixth Circuit authority. Second, the Court engages in a lengthy analysis of Michigan’s choice of law rules which will almost certainly be the last word on the subject unless and until the Michigan Supreme Court tackles the issue. However, at the end of the day, the Court acknowledged that this is largely a case-by-case determination, so both sides will have plenty to argue about!