Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins 304 U.S. 64 (1938)

views updated

ERIE RAILROAD CO. v. TOMPKINS 304 U.S. 64 (1938)

The Supreme Court in Erie posed the question whether the "oft-challenged doctrine of swift v. tyson (1842) shall now be disapproved," and answered that it should. The Court rejected its earlier construction of the Rules of Decision Act, originally section 34 of the judiciary act of 1789, and held that the "laws of the several states"—which, except as otherwise required by federal law, are to be "regarded as rules of decision" in civil actions in the federal courts "in cases where they apply"—included all of the decisional or common law of the states.

Erie, like Swift, involved an exercise of the diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts. In Erie, plaintiff Tompkins brought a federal court suit against the railroad for personal injuries, and the court of appeals upheld a substantial jury verdict in the face of the railroad's claim that it had not violated the limited duty owned to plaintiff under the decisional law of the state where the injury occurred. That court concluded that, in the absence of a state statute, the question of the scope of the railroad's duty was one not of "local" but of "general" law, and under the general law the railroad had a duty of care that the jury could properly find to have been broken.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice louis d. brandeis, reversed and remanded for application of state law with respect to the scope of the railroad's duty. The Court concluded that (1) the refusal in Swift to read the mandate of the Rules of Decision Act as embracing all of the decisional law of the states was based on an incorrect construction of the purpose of that act; (2) the construction in Swift had prevented uniformity in the administration of state law and had permitted "grave discrimination by noncitizens [of a state] against citizens"; and (3) the doctrine of Swift represented "an unconstitutional assumption of powers by the Courts of the United States." Justices pierce butler and james c. mcreynolds dissented; Justice stanley f. reed concurred in part, believing it unnecessary to reach the constitutional issue addressed by the Court.

Although the parties in Erie had not briefed the question whether Swift should be overruled, there had been intimations of the Court's intentions in earlier majority and dissenting opinions. And while the Erie result itself still finds general acceptance, the years since the decision have seen much debate about its rationale, scope, and application.

David L. Shapiro

(see also: Federal Common Law, Civil.)

About this article

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins 304 U.S. 64 (1938)

Updated About content Print Article