Citation. 304 U.S. 64 (1938)
Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff sued Defendant in New York federal court for injuries sustained from a train in Pennsylvania. Defendant argued it was not liable for Plaintiff’s injuries under Pennsylvania common law.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Applicable state statutory and common law is applied to a case in federal court under diversity jurisdiction unless the issue of the case falls under the U.S. Constitution or an act of Congress.
Tompkins (Plaintiff), a citizen of Pennsylvania, was injured in Pennsylvania by a train while walking on the pathway next to the railroad track. Plaintiff sued the owner of the train, Erie Railroad Co. (Defendant), a citizen of New York, in the federal court for Southern New York under diversity jurisdiction. Defendant argued that it was not liable for the injuries under Pennsylvania common law, which was applicable to the case under Section 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789.
In federal cases heard under diversity jurisdiction, where no federal statutory or constitutional law is at issue, should applicable state law be applied instead of federal common law?
Yes, the law of the state should be applied in these cases. The case was reversed and remanded.
Justice Butler argued that the Court’s decision violated judicial procedure.
Justice Reed agreed that Swift v. Tyson should be overturned but disagreed that it should be overturned as unconstitutional.
The Court overturned Swift v. Tyson as unconstitutional because (1) no federal general common law existed for the courts to apply, (2) the decision gave federal judges too much discretion in choice of law, and (3) the decision encroached on legitimate state power. Thus, the Court remanded the case to determine the question of liability under Pennsylvania common law.