Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Elec. Coop., Inc.
356 U.S. 525 (1958)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Elec. Coop., Inc., 356 U.S. 525 (1958)

Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc.

No. 57

Argued January 28, 1958

Restored to the calendar for reargument March 3, 1958

Reargued April 28-29, 1958

Decided May 19, 1958

356 U.S. 525


Basing jurisdiction on diversity of citizenship, petitioner sued in the Federal District Court to recover for injuries allegedly caused by respondent's negligence. Respondent asserted as an affirmative defense that petitioner was respondent's employee for purposes of the State Workmen's Compensation Act, and that the Act provided petitioner's exclusive remedy. After hearing respondent's evidence on this issue, the trial judge struck the defense without hearing petitioner's evidence. The Court of Appeals, holding that, under state law, respondent had established its defense, reversed and directed that judgment be entered for respondent.

Held: judgment reversed and cause remanded. Pp. 356 U. S. 526-540.

1. The Court of Appeals erred in directing judgment for respondent without allowing petitioner an opportunity to present evidence on the issue of respondent's affirmative defense. Pp. 356 U. S. 528-533.

2. Notwithstanding state decisions holding that this statutory defense must be decided by the judge alone, petitioner is entitled in a federal court to have the factual issues raised by the defense presented to the jury. Pp. 356 U. S. 533-540.

(a) The state rule requiring judge determination of this defense is not so bound up with state-created rights and obligations as to require its application in federal courts under Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U. S. 64. Pp. 356 U. S. 535-536.

(b) Although jury determination of the issue may substantially affect the outcome of the case, the policy of Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U. S. 99, does not invariably prevail over an affirmative federal policy favoring jury determination of disputed factual questions. Pp. 356 U. S. 536-539.

Page 356 U. S. 526

(c) There is here no such strong possibility that the outcome of the suit would be affected by jury determination of the defense as to require federal practice to yield in the interest of uniformity. Pp. 356 U. S. 539-540.

238 F.2d 346 reversed, and cause remanded.

Primary Holding
In diversity cases where the Erie doctrine applies, federal courts must balance their respect for the substance of state laws with the need to preserve the essential characteristics and functions of the federal courts. The Seventh Amendment jury function is one of those essential functions.
Byrd, a resident of North Carolina, was employed by a subcontractor of Blue Ridge Electric, a South Carolina company. When he was hurt during his work on power lines, Byrd sued Blue Ridge for negligence in a federal court, based on diversity jurisdiction. Blue Ridge defended against his claim based on a South Carolina law that would restrict workers in Byrd's position to workers' compensation benefits. This was because South Carolina provided that employees of sub-contractors should be considered employees of contractors for which the sub-contractor provided work. Collateral negligence actions could not be sustained in these situations under South Carolina law.

Although the trial court did not allow this issue to be considered, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it should have been considered and remanded the case for a new trial. South Carolina law further provided that the immunity defense needed to be determined by a judge rather than a jury. Byrd contended that his Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial should trump that provision of the state law.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Tom C. Clark
  • Harold Hitz Burton

The South Carolina law at issue is essentially a procedural rule because it determines how immunity should be enforced, rather than affecting the substantive rights and obligations created by the state. If there are no significant countervailing considerations, the federal court should follow this type of rule. In this case, however, the constitutional requirements of the Seventh Amendment protect the right to a jury trial as an essential factor in the federal court process.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Charles Evans Whittaker (Author)


  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)
  • John Marshall Harlan II


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

Case Commentary

The difference between trying a case before a judge or a jury makes less of an impact on the outcome of the decision than the statute of limitations. If a federal policy suggests that the state rule should not be followed, the federal court should not follow the state rule based only the difference between the judge and the jury. This decision thus replaces the outcome-determinative test used to distinguish substantive from procedural law in Erie cases with a subtler balance of interests test.

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