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Dice v. Akron, Canton & Youngstown R.R.

    Brief Fact Summary
    Dice (Plaintiff), a railroad fireman who was injured when Akron’s (Defendant) train jumped the track, claimed that he was defrauded when Defendant informed him that the receipts he signed for $924.63 were not a full release of Defendant’s liability to him when actually they were.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    The right to trial by jury, being a substantial part of the rights given under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, it cannot be denied by a state court as simply a local rule of procedure.

    Facts
    Dice (Plaintiff), a railroad fireman, suffered serious injury when the Akron (Defendant) train in which he rode jumped the tracks.  Plaintiff signed receipts for $924.63 in payments he received from Defendant.  Defendant represented that the receipts were nothing more than that, but actually they were a release of any liability on the part of Defendant.  Plaintiff brought an action under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act in an Ohio trial court.  He was awarded $25,000, but Defendant was given judgment in N.O.V. because of Dice’s (Plaintiff) “supine negligence†in failing to read the release.  The state court of appeals reversed the judgment N.O.V. on grounds that federal law controlled and that the verdict of the jury must stand because there was sufficient evidence of fraud.  The Ohio Supreme Court reversed that ruling on grounds that state, rather than federal law, controlled; that under that law, a man of ordinary intelligence who can read is bound by a release he signs; and under Ohio law, factual issues as to fraud were properly decided by the judge, not the jury.  Dice (Plaintiff) appealed.

    Issue
    Is the right to trial too substantial a part of the rights given under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act to be denied by a state court as simply a local rule of procedure?

    Held
    (Black, J.)  Yes.  The right to trial by jury, being a substantial part of the rights given under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, it cannot be denied by a state court as simply a local rule of procedure.  Validity of releases under the Act raises a federal question to be determined under federal, not state law.  Second, Ohio’s rule, in effect, says that an employee trusts his employer at his peril.  This policy is opposite to that of the Act and is against the modern trend.  Third, Ohio gave Dice (Plaintiff) the usual jury trial on issues of negligence, but allowed the judge to determine questions as to fraud.  A state cannot provide a jury trial for cases arising under a federal act, but single out a certain issue to be determined by the judge instead of a jury.  The right to a jury trial is a basic and fundamental feature of federal jurisprudence.  It was, therefore, error to say it was simply a local rule of procedure.  Reversed and remanded.

    Dissent
    (Frankfurter, J.)  Although it was correct to reverse, the grounds stated for reversal were in error.  A state court is not under duty to treat the conduct of a trial arising under a federal law any differently than under state law.  Instead, in this case, reversal was required for misapplication of the standard applied for validity of releases.

    Discussion
    In the situation this case presents, where a state court entertains an action based on federal law, the same considerations that determine the use of federal procedure in diversity cases appear to govern the applicability of state procedural laws.  Federal questions have been held to include the burden of proof respecting contributory negligence and the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a verdict.  As it is, the majority of cases involving the Federal Employers’ Liability Act have been concerned with sufficiency of the evidence.  It seems obvious that permitting state law to govern these issues would burden strong federal policies.


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