Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins
304 U.S. 64 (1938)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938)

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins

No. 367

Argued January 31, 1938

Decided April 25, 1938

304 U.S. 64


1. The liability of a railroad company for injury caused by negligent operation of its train to a pedestrian on a much-used, beaten path on its right-of-way along and near the rails depends, in the absence of a federal or state statute, upon the unwritten law of the State where the accident occurred. Pp. 304 U. S. 71 et seq.

2. A federal court exercising jurisdiction over such a case on the ground of diversity of citizenship, is not free to treat this question as one of so-called "general law," but must apply the state law as declared by the highest state court. Swift v. Tyson, 16 Pet. 1, overruled. Id.

3. There is no federal general common law. Congress has no power to declare substantive rules of common law applicable in a State whether they be local in their nature or "general," whether they be commercial law or a part of the law of torts. And no clause in the Constitution purports to confer such a power upon the federal courts. Except in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by Acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the State. And whether the law of the State shall be declared by its legislature in a statute or by its highest court in a decision is not a matter of federal concern. P. 304 U. S. 78.

4. In disapproving the doctrine of Swift v. Tyson, the Court does not hold unconstitutional § 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 or any other Act of Congress. It merely declares that, by applying the doctrine of that case, rights which are reserved by the Constitution to the several States have been invaded. P. 304 U. S. 79.

90 F.2d 603, reversed.

Page 304 U. S. 65

CERTIORARI, 302 U.S. 671, to review the affirmance of a judgment recovered against the railroad company in an action for personal injuries. The accident was in Pennsylvania. The action was in New York, jurisdiction being based on diversity of citizenship

Page 304 U. S. 69

Primary Holding
Since federal common law is invalid, federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction should apply substantive state law and federal procedural law, unless there is a conflict between substantive state and federal law.
The events giving rise to this case were relatively straightforward, but complexities arose from the surrounding circumstances. After being driven to a location near his home by a friend, Harry Tompkins was walking the remaining distance next to the Erie and Wyoming Valley Railroad tracks. The path was narrow and close to the tracks but frequently used. Since it was late at night, the darkness prevented Tompkins from seeing an object that protruded from a passing train. He was struck by the object and fell under the train, where his arm was crushed.

The accident happened in Pennsylvania, and Tompkins was a resident of Pennsylvania. However, in a likely instance of forum shopping, he filed a lawsuit against the railroad company in a federal court in New York, where the corporation was a resident. This was probably because Tompkins had a stronger chance of success in New York than in Pennsylvania. Federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction generally apply the statutory law of the states, but the 1842 Supreme Court decision in Swift v. Tyson ruled that they should apply federal common law to non-statutory causes of action. Whereas federal common law applied an ordinary negligence standard for the duty of care owed by railroads to people in his situation, Pennsylvania state law would have required him to show wanton negligence. Tompkins prevailed and received a damages award, but the payment of the award was stayed during the proceedings.

Procedural History

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - 90 F.2d 603 (2nd. Cir. 1937)

Affirmed. The lower court properly arrived at a damages award for the plaintiff after correctly interpreting the applicable law.



  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis (Author)
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Owen Josephus Roberts

Deeply concerned about the potential of forum shopping, Brandeis decided that it was time to depart from the rule in Swift and seek greater uniformity in how the law was applied. He pointed out that Justice Story, who wrote the majority opinion in Swift, had believed that the laws of states eventually would become more similar to each other and to federal law, reducing the risk of forum shopping. This vision had not come to pass over the following century, partly because the Supreme Court did not often review issues hinging on state common law. By using diversity jurisdiction, moreover, parties could choose the law that they wanted by relocating or moving their business to a different state. There were even situations in which a party pursued litigation in federal court after failing to achieve its goals in state courts. As a result, the already overburdened dockets of both systems were placed under greater pressure through the manipulations of litigants.

Arguing that the Swift decision went beyond the boundaries of the appropriate constitutional role for the judicial branch, Brandeis wrote that federal courts are not entitled to create their own common law for issues that properly fall within state law. He also suggested that the impact of that decision created vertical separation of powers concerns involving the federal government and the states. Instead, he felt that applying state substantive law would lead to more predictable outcomes for litigants and greater efficiency for courts.


  • Stanley Forman Reed (Author)

Reed had a minor quibble with the way in which the majority reached its conclusion, stating that the interpretation in Swift was merely erroneous rather than unconstitutional.


  • Pierce Butler (Author)
  • James Clark McReynolds

Ironically, Butler felt that Erie rather than Swift was a decision in which the Court had gone beyond its appropriate role. He pointed out that neither party had raised a constitutional question in the case, and thus the Court had decided it on inappropriate grounds. The decision in Swift had not been contested until the majority chose to introduce it.


  • Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (Author)

Case Commentary

While this is arguably the most important civil procedure decision in the history of the Supreme Court, its distinction between procedural and substantive law is not as sharp as it sounds and has led to a host of later decisions attempting to interpret and clarify it. Uncertainty remains when a federal court must review a case on an issue that a state court has not yet decided. The decisions of lower federal courts on such topics are not binding on state courts, whereas state court decisions often are binding on themselves. Should the state court later reach a different conclusion, a federal court reviewing the same issue in the future would be required to follow the state court's interpretation rather than the previous federal court interpretation. (However, the initial decision in federal court would remain in effect rather than being reopened.) In some instances, a federal court will certify a question to a state court on a matter of state law.

The initial price paid for the Court's shift by the lower levels of federal courts was high. Many decisions over the previous century had relied on Swift and needed to be overturned. Tompkins also paid a high price, since the New York court applied Pennsylvania law upon remand under its choice-of-law rules and dismissed his case.

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