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Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (S.Ct. 1938)


As Tompkins walked on Erie Railroad Company’s land, a freight train injured him. While Pennsylvania common law would have denied Tompkins relief as a trespasser, federal common law did not regard Tompkins a trespasser. No Pennsylvania statute applied to the issue of trespassing. In Swift v. Tyson (S.Ct. 1842), Justice Story held that the Federal Judiciary Act required federal courts to apply state statutes, but not state common law, in diversity cases. Accordingly, the District Court applied federal common law in this diversity case and awarded damages to Tompkins.


Which law, federal or state, must be applied to substantive issues arising in a diversity case?


(Brandeis, J.) Under the Constitution, only state law, both common law and statutory law, may be applied to substantive issues arising in a diversity case. There is no federal general common law.


(Reed, J.) This case need only be decided by expanding the word “law” in Section: 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act to include common law as well as statutes. Absent the Federal Judiciary Act, it is unclear whether federal courts may, under the Constitution, develop their own common law.


(Butler, J.) Since no finding of the railroad’s negligence was ever made, the case should be retried. Furthermore, by forcing courts to adhere to state law, the majority infringes on Congress’ ability to regulate the federal court system.

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