Robertson v. Wegmann
436 U.S. 584 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978)

Robertson v. Wegmann

No. 77-178

Argued March 21, 1978

Decided May 31, 1978

436 U.S. 584

Syllabus

One Shaw filed an action for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner and others, claiming that they had deprived him of his constitutional rights. Upon the death of Shaw before trial, respondent executor of his estate was substituted as plaintiff. Petitioner and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that Shaw's death abated the action. The District Court denied the motion. The court held that the applicable survivorship rule was governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that the jurisdiction conferred on district courts for the protection of civil rights shall be exercised conformably with federal laws so far as such laws are suitable,

"but in all cases where they . . . are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies . . . the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the [forum] State"

shall apply as long as they are "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." The court found the federal civil rights laws to be "deficient in not providing for survival," and then held that, under Louisiana law, an action like Shaw's would survive only in favor of a spouse, children, parents, or siblings, none of whom was alive at the time of Shaw's death, but refused to apply the state law, finding it inconsistent with federal law. In place of the state law, the court created "a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The District Court should have adopted the Louisiana survivorship law, which would have caused Shaw's action to abate. Pp. 436 U. S. 590-595.

(a) There is nothing in § 1983, despite its broad sweep, to indicate that a state law causing abatement of a particular action should invariably be ignored in favor of a rule of absolute survivorship. No claim is made that Louisiana's survivorship laws do not in general comport with the underlying policies of § 1983, or that Louisiana's decision to restrict certain survivorship rights to the relations specified above is unreasonable. Pp. 436 U. S. 590-592.

(b) The goal of compensating those injured by a deprivation of rights provides no basis for requiring compensation of one who is merely suing

Page 436 U. S. 585

as decedent's executor. And, given that most Louisiana actions survive the plaintiff's death, the fact that a particular action might abate would not adversely affect § 1983's role in preventing official illegality, at least in situations such as the one here, where there is no claim that the illegality caused plaintiff's death. P. 436 U. S. 592.

545 F.2d 980, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and WHITE, JJ., joined, post, p. 436 U. S. 595.

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