Landmark Supreme Court Case: Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (1938)
Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (1938) is the 74th landmark Supreme Court case featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (1938)
Erie Railroad Facts:
Harry Tompkins, a citizen and resident of Pennsylvania, was walking next to the Erie Railroad’s Erie and Wyoming Valley Railroad tracks in Hughestown, Pennsylvania, at 2:30 a.m. on July 27, 1934. A friend of Tompkins had driven him to within a few blocks of his home, which was located on a dead-end street near the tracks. Tompkins chose to walk the remaining distance on a narrow but well-worn footpath adjacent to the tracks. A train approached in the darkness, and an object protruding from one of the cars struck Tompkins. When he fell to the ground, his right arm was crushed beneath the wheels of the train.
The train was owned and operated by the Erie Railroad company, a New York corporation. In a likely instance of forum shopping, Tompkins filed a lawsuit against the railroad company in a federal district court, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where the corporation was a resident.
The Court had previously ruled that Federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction (jurisdictional amount exceeds $75,000 and no plaintiff shares a state of citizenship with any defendant) should apply federal common law to non-statutory causes of action. The district court, following the federal law at that time, applied neither New York nor Pennsylvania common law, but instead applied federal common law, which applied an ‘ordinary negligence’ standard in determining the duty of care owed to persons not employed by the railroad or otherwise acting in the course of their employment walking along railroad tracks. Pennsylvania state law would have required Tompkins to show Pennsylvania’s common law standard of ‘wanton negligence’ for the duty of care owed by railroads to trespassers.
The case was decided by a jury which was instructed by Judge Samuel Mandelbaum in accordance with the federal negligence standard. It found in favor of Tompkins and awarded him damages. The railroad appealed to the Second Circuit, which affirmed, then petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, which was granted; Justice Benjamin Cardozo granted the railroad a stay of its obligation to pay the judgment in Tompkins’ favor until the Court decided the case.
Q: Should federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction apply state or federal law?
A: State law.
Erie Railroad Conclusion
6-2 holding under the Rules of Decision Act, federal district courts in diversity jurisdiction cases must apply the law of the states in which they sit, including the judicial doctrine of the state’s highest court, where it does not conflict with federal law. There is no general federal common law. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.
The Court overturned Swift (1842) and sought greater uniformity in how the law was applied. Swift went beyond the boundaries of the appropriate constitutional role for the judicial branch. The impact of Swift created vertical separation of powers concerns involving the federal government and the states. Applying state substantive law would lead to more predictable outcomes for litigants and greater efficiency for courts.
The case was remanded to the Second Circuit for a ruling on the merits of Pennsylvania law. Rather than applying New York law, the Court of Appeals applied the law of Pennsylvania as required by the choice-of-law rules of the time — under which the law of the place of the accident was determinative — and threw out Tompkins’ case.
Erie Railroad is considered one of the major examples where the Supreme Court has exceptionally gone against the principle of party presentation, as neither party had suggested a need to review Swift but the Court took it up themselves to review and ultimately overturn it. Later opinions limited the application of Erie to substantive state law; federal courts can generally use the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure while hearing state law claims.
Next Case: Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada (1938)
Previous Case: U.S. v. Carolene Products (1938)