Section 6 of the Employers' Liability Act, providing "[t]hat no
action shall be maintained under this Act unless commenced within
two years from the day the cause of action accrued," is to be
construed as allowing, in death cases, two years from the time of
death, not two years from the appointment of the administrator. P.
271 U. S.
281 Pa. 270 reversed.
Page 271 U. S. 59
Certiorari to a judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,
which affirmed a judgment (26 Dauphin Co.Pa.Reps. 234) in an action
under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.
MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondent's intestate, while employed by the Philadelphia &
Reading Railway Company, an interstate carrier of which petitioner
is the successor, received injuries from which he died on the
following day, April 23, 1915. Letters of administration were
granted to respondent September 23, 1921. Five months later, on
February 6, 1922, nearly seven years after the death, respondent
brought the action now under review in the Pennsylvania court of
common pleas to establish a liability under the Federal Employers'
Liability Act. Act of April 22, 1908, c. 149, 35 Stat. 65, 66, as
amended by the Act of April 5, 1910, c. 173, 36 Stat. 291.
A petition of the defendant below, petitioner here, for judgment
of nol. pros.
on the ground that the action, having been
brought more than two years after the death, was barred by the
statute of limitations, was denied (26 Dauphin County Pa. Reports
234), and judgment was entered for plaintiff, respondent here. On
an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the judgment was
affirmed. 281 Pa. 270. This Court granted certiorari. 266 U.S.
As respondent brought his action more than two years after the
death and less than two years after his appointment as
administrator, the sole question presented for
Page 271 U. S. 60
review is whether, in an action for wrongful death brought under
the federal Employers' Liability Act, the two-year statute of
limitations begins to run at the date of the death or at the date
of the appointment of the administrator of the decedent.
The Federal Employers' Liability Act imposes upon common
carriers by railroad, engaged in interstate commerce, liability for
the death of an employee employed in such commerce when the death
results from the negligence of the carrier or its agents, and gives
a right of action to the personal representative of the decedent
for the benefit of the surviving spouse and children of such
employee, or, if there are no such survivors, then for the benefit
of his dependent next of kin. By § 6 of the Act, it is provided:
"[t]hat no action shall be maintained under this act unless
commenced within two years from the day the cause of action
The application of this statute turns on the question whether
the cause of action created by the Act may be deemed to have
"accrued," within the meaning of the Act at the time of death or on
the appointment of the administrator, who is the only person
authorized by the statute to maintain the action. American R.
Co. of Porto Rico v. Birch, 224 U. S. 547
St. Louis, S.F. & T. Ry. v. Seale, 229 U.
. The question had never been directly answered by
this Court, although, in Missouri, K. & T. Ry. v.
Wulf, 226 U. S. 570
was assumed that the cause of action was barred in two years after
It has received conflicting answers in the decisions of other
courts. The decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in
American R. Co. of Porto Rico v. Coronas,
230 F. 545,
holding that the statute does not begin to run until the
appointment of the administrator, has been followed in Guinther
v. Philadelphia & R. Ry.,
1 F.2d 85, in Kierejewski v.
Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co.,
280 F. 125, and in Bird
v. Ft. Worth & Rio Grande
Page 271 U. S. 61
109 Tex. 323. Other cases have laid down a
similar rule with respect to state laws giving a right of recovery
for wrongful death. Andrews v. Hartford & New Haven R.
34 Conn. 57; Crapo v. City of Syracuse,
On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Georgia (Seaboard
Air Line v. Brooks,
151 Ga. 625) and the Supreme Court of
Kansas (Giersch v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry.,
171 Pac. 591) have expressly declined to follow the rule laid down
in the First Circuit in American R. Co. of Porto Rico v.
The same result was reached in Bixler v.
Pennsylvania R. Co.,
201 F. 553, and a like rule has been
applied in state courts to similar state statutes. See Radezky
v. Sargent & Co.,
77 Conn. 110; Rodman v. Ry.,
Kan. 645; Swisher v. Ry.,
76 Kan. 97; Carden, Adm'r v.
L. & N. R. Co.,
101 Ky. 113; Gulledge v. R. Co.,
147 N.C. 234; Hall v. R. Co.,
149 N.C. 108.
This diversity of view arises principally from the attempt made
to find in the word "accrued," used in the statute, some definite
technical meaning which will, in itself, enable courts to say at
what point of time the cause of action has come into existence, and
consequently at what point of time the statute of limitations
begins to run.
It is argued in support of one view, as the court below held,
that, as the cause of action for death is the creature of statute,
and is given exclusively to the administrator of the decedent, no
cause of action can arise or accrue until there is an
administrator. On the other hand, it is asserted with, we think,
equal plausibility, that when all of the events have occurred which
determine the liability of the common carrier, the cause of action
has come into existence, or has "accrued."
We do not think it is possible to assign to the word "accrued"
any definite technical meaning which by
Page 271 U. S. 62
itself would enable us to say whether the statutory period
begins to run at one time or the other; but the uncertainty is
removed when the word is interpreted in the light of the general
purposes of the statute and of its other provisions, and with due
regard to those practical ends which are to be served by any
limitation of the time within which an action must be brought.
Whatever effect may be given to the assertion often made in
judicial opinion that, in the ordinary case where a cause of action
arises in favor of the estate of a decedent, there is no person who
can enforce it if there is no executor or administrator,
cannot be applied strictly to causes of action for death arising
under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. For, while it is true
that the executor or administrator is the person authorized to
bring the suit, he nevertheless acts only for the benefit of
persons specifically designated in the statute. At the time of
death, there are identified persons for whose benefit the liability
exists and who can start the machinery of the law in motion to
enforce it by applying for the appointment of an administrator.
This Court has held that a suit brought by such persons in their
individual capacity is not a nullity within the provisions of the
Act, and that if, by amendment, the plaintiff is properly described
as executor or administrator of the decedent, even though the
amendment is had after the expiration of the statutory period, the
suit may be maintained and a recovery had under the statute.
See Missouri, K. & T. Ry. v. Wulf, supra. See also
Seaboard Air Line v. Renn, 241 U. S. 290
New York C. & H.R. Co.R. Co. v. Kinney, 260 U.
. Thus, at the death of decedent,
Page 271 U. S. 63
there are real parties in interest who may procure the action to
be brought, and there are no such practical inconveniences or
necessary delays as would lead to the conclusion that the word
"accrued," as used in the statute, cannot be taken to refer to the
time of death.
The language of the statute evidences an intention to set a
definite limit to the period within which an action may be brought
under it without reference to the exigencies which arise from the
administration of a decedent's estate. The statute relates not only
to causes of action for wrongful death, but to causes of action for
other injuries. Where the cause of action for personal injury
survives to personal representatives of an injured employee who
dies after the injury from other causes, the language of the
statute seems peremptorily to require the action to be brought
within two years from the time of injury, without regard to any
intervening period after death when there is no executor or
administrator. Compare Whipple v. Johnson,
66 Ark. 204;
Gibson v. Ruff,
8 App.D.C. 262; Sammis v.
31 Fla. 10; Sanford v. Sanford,
It cannot be supposed that Congress, in enacting the statute,
intended to impose a fixed limitation of two years within which all
actions for personal injury must be begun, regardless of death and
of the time of appointment of an administrator of the injured
employee, and at the same time intended to allow an indefinite
period within which application may be made for the appointment of
an administrator as the prerequisite to an action to recover for
wrongful death. Indeed, the limitation would seem to be more
necessary in the case of personal injuries than in the case of a
wrongful death, for, in the former case, some part of the period of
limitations will have run at the time of death. This inconsistency
is avoided if the word "accrued," whether applied to causes of
action for personal injury or for wrongful death, be taken to
Page 271 U. S. 64
uniformly to the time when the events have occurred which
determine that the carrier is liable, even though the particular
person through whose agency the liability is to be enforced has not
It is argued that, as it was provided by Lord Campbell's Act
that the period of limitation should run from the time of death,
the omission of that phraseology from the Employers' Liability Act
indicates that it was the intention of Congress that the statutory
period should run from a different time -- namely, from the time of
the appointment of an administrator. This argument, however, leaves
out of account the fact that the present statute deals with causes
of action arising from personal injury, as well as causes of action
arising from a wrongful death. The limitation that no action shall
be maintained under this Act unless commenced within two years from
the day the cause of action accrued applies to both. This accounts
for the omission of any specific reference to death in fixing the
period of limitation, and the fact that the limitation is made
applicable equally to the two causes of action, one of which
admittedly "accrues" on the happening of the events which fix the
defendant's liability, leads persuasively to the conclusion that a
like test was intended for determining when the cause of action
accrued for wrongful death.
Every practical consideration which would lead to the imposition
of any period of limitation would require that the period should
begin to run from the definitely ascertained time of death, rather
than the uncertain time of the appointment of an administrator.
Here, the appointment was not made until six years after the death.
No reason appears, if the opinion of the court below is followed,
why the time might not have been extended indefinitely by the
failure to apply for administration. The only persons who can
procure the appointment of an administrator are ordinarily spouse,
next of kin, or
Page 271 U. S. 65
creditors of the decedent. Certainly the common carrier would
have no standing to make the application. The very purpose of a
period of limitation is that there may be, at some definitely
ascertained period, an end to litigation. If the persons who are
the designated beneficiaries of the right of action created may
choose their own time for applying for the appointment of an
administrator, and consequently for setting the statute running,
the two-year period of limitation. so far as it applies to actions
for wrongful death, might as well have been omitted from the
statute. An interpretation of a statute purporting to set a
definite limitation upon the time of bringing action, without
saving clauses, which would, nevertheless, leave defendants subject
indefinitely to actions for the wrong done, would, we think, defeat
its obvious purpose. There is nothing in the language of the
statute to require, or indeed to support, such an
Judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is reversed.
* See Johnson, Adm'r v. Wren,
3 Stew. 172; Bucklin
5 Barb. 393; Dunning v. Ocean Nat. Bank,
N.Y. 497; Seymour v Mechanics & Metals Nat. Bank,
App.Div. 707; Murray v. East India Co.,
5 B. & Ald.
204; but see Tynan v. Walker,
35 Cal. 634, 637, 638.