Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) – In interpreting the common law, the federal court is bound by declaration of the highest state court on the state law

Facts:

     Tompkins, a citizen of Pennsylvania, was injured on a dark night by a passing freight train of the Erie Railroad Company while walking along its right of way at Hughestown in the state.  He claimed that the act occurred through negligence in the operation or maintenance of the train; that he was rightfully on the premises because he was on a commonly used footpath that ran for a short distance alongside the tracks; and that he was struck by something that looked like a door projecting from one of the moving cars.  He brought an action in the federal court for southern New York, which had jurisdiction because the company is a corporation of that state.  Erie insisted that its duty to Tompkins was no greater than that owed to a trespasser.  It contended that its duty to Tompkins and hence its liability, should be determined in accordance with the Pennsylvania law: that under the law of Pennsylvania, as declared by the highest court, persons who use pathways along the railroad right of way are to be deemed trespassers; and that the railroad is not liable.  Tompkins denied that any such rule had been established, and contended that since there was no statute of the state on the subject, the railroad’s duty and liability were to be determined in federal courts as a matter of general law.

Question:

     Is the federal court bound by the alleged rule of Pennsylvania’s common law as declared by the highest court of that state or free to exercise an independent judgment as to what the common law of the state is or should be?

Decision:

     In interpreting the common law, the federal court is bound by declaration of the highest state court on the state law.

Reasons:

     J. Brandeis (6-2).  Except in matters governed by the federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the substantive law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.  And whether the law of the state shall be declared by its legislature in a statute or by its highest court in a decision is not a matter of federal concern.  There is no federal general common law.  Congress has no power to declare substitute rules of common law applicable in a state whether they be local in their nature or “general,” be they commercial law or part of the law of torts.  No clause of the Constitution purports to confer such a power upon the federal courts.  So far as a state enforces common law, it does so on the basis of its own authority without regard to what it may have been in England or any where else.  The authority and only authority is the state, and if that be so, the voice adopted by the state as its own should utter the last word.

Note:

     Erie Railroad overruled Swift v. Tyson (I842), which said there was a federal common law.  This problem so plagued the federal courts for more than one hundred years that the Supreme Court grasped the Erie case to change the law.

Citation:

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64; 58 S. Ct. 817; 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938)

References:

Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.

Rowman & Littlefield’s Essential Supreme Court Decisions 16th Edition by John R. Vile.  p 114.

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