Railway Company v. Whitton's Administrator, 80 U.S. 270 (1871)
If a state law has created a general rule regarding rights or damages to persons or property, this does not remove the otherwise proper jurisdiction of federal courts.
Whitton brought a wrongful death claim in a Wisconsin state court as the administrator of his wife's estate. He argued that her death had been caused by the negligence of the Railway Co. The statute giving rise to the claim provided that it could be brought only in a Wisconsin state court. While it was pending, Congress passed a law that allowed the case to be removed to federal court, which Whitton succeeded in doing. He obtained a $5,000 damages award in federal court, but Railway challenged that court's jurisdiction. It argued that a remedy could be granted only by a state court, in accordance with the state law that created this cause of action.Opinions
- Stephen Johnson Field (Author)
- Salmon Portland Chase
- Samuel Nelson
- Nathan Clifford
- Noah Haynes Swayne
- Samuel Freeman Miller
- David Davis
- William Strong
- Joseph P. Bradley
State laws have created causes of action in many areas of law, such as real estate, and they often specify that an action may be brought in certain courts or counties. If the citizenship of one of the parties is sufficient to establish jurisdiction in federal court, however, this jurisdiction may not be removed by the limitations in a state law.Case Commentary
This decision does not apply as broadly as its rhetoric may suggest. A federal court will be more likely to accept the reservation by state law of a certain right of action to state courts if it involves an area that is traditionally considered to have special importance for states. Family law and estate disputes are examples.
U.S. Supreme CourtRailway Company v. Whitton's Administrator, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 270 270 (1871)
Railway Company v. Whitton's Administrator
80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 270
1. Although a corporation, being an artificial body created by legislative power, is not a citizen within several provisions of the Constitution; yet where rights of action are to be enforced by or against a corporation, it will be considered as a citizen of the state where it was created, within the clause extending the judicial power of the United States to controversies between citizens of different states.
2. Where a corporation is created by the laws of a state, it is, in suits brought in a federal court in that state, to be considered as a citizen of such state, whatever its status or citizenship may be elsewhere by the legislation of other states.
3. A statute of Wisconsin provides that
"Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default, and the act, neglect, or default is such as would (if death had not ensued) have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages in respect thereof, then and in every such case, the person who or the corporation which would have been liable if death bad not ensued, shall be liable to an action for damages, notwithstanding the death of the person injured, provided that such action shall be brought for a death caused in this state, and in some court established by the constitution and laws of the same."
Held that the proviso requiring the action to be brought in a court of the state does not prevent a nonresident plaintiff from removing the action, under the Act of Congress of March 2, 1867, to a federal court and maintaining it there.
4. Whenever a general rule as to property or personal rights, or injuries to either, is established by state legislation, its enforcement by a federal court in a case between proper parties is a matter of course, and the jurisdiction of the court in such case is not subject to state limitation.
5. The act of March 2, 1867, amending the Act of July 27, 1866, "for the removal of causes in certain cases from state courts," by which amendatory act it is provided that in suits then pending, or which might be subsequently brought in a state court,
"in which there is a controversy between a citizen of the state in which the suit is brought and a citizen of another state, and the matter in dispute exceeds the sum of five hundred dollars, exclusive of costs,"
the suit may be removed to a federal court upon petition of the nonresident party, whether plaintiff or defendant, at any time before final hearing or trial, upon making and filing in the state court "an affidavit stating that he has reason to and does believe that, from prejudice or local influence, he will not be able to obtain justice in such state court," is constitutional and valid.
6. The judicial power of the United States extending by the Constitution to controversies between citizens of different states, as well as to cases arising under the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States, the manner and conditions upon which that power shall be exercised, except as the original or appellate character of the jurisdiction is specially designated in the Constitution, are more matters of legislative discretion.
7. It is not error for a court to refuse to give an extended series of instructions, though some of them may be correct in the propositions of law which they present, if the law arising upon the evidence is given by the court with such fullness as to guide correctly the jury in its findings; nor is a judgment to be set aside because the charge of the court may be open to some verbal criticisms in particulars considered apart by themselves, which could not when taken with the rest of the charge have misled a jury of ordinary intelligence.
8. The respective obligations of railway companies running locomotives through cities, and of persons crossing the tracks in such places.
Henry Whitton, as administrator of the estate of his wife in Wisconsin, under letters of administration granted in that state, brought suit in 1866 in the of the state courts of Wisconsin to recover damages for the death of his wife; the same having been caused, as he alleged, by the carelessness and culpable mismanagement of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company.
The action was founded on a statute of Wisconsin, which provides that
"Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default, and the act, neglect, or default is such as would (if death had not ensued) have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages in respect thereof, then and in every such case the person who or the corporation which would have been liable if death had not ensued shall be liable to an action for damages notwithstanding the death of the person injured, provided that such action shall be brought for a death caused in this state, and in some court established by the constitution and laws of the same."
The statute also provides that
"every such action shall be brought by and in the name of the personal representative of such deceased person, and the amount recovered shall belong and be paid over to the husband or widow of such deceased person, if such relative survive him or her,"
"the jury may give such damages, not exceeding five thousand dollars, as they shall deem fair and just in reference to the pecuniary injury resulting from such death to the relatives of the deceased."
Whilst the cause was pending in the state court, where it was originally brought, and after issue joined, Congress passed an Act of March 2, 1867, [Footnote 1] amending the Act of July 27, 1866, "for the removal of causes in certain cases from state courts." By this amendatory act it is provided that in suits then pending, or which might be subsequently brought
in a state court,
"in which there is a controversy between a citizen of the state in which the suit is brought and a citizen of another state and the matter in dispute exceeds the sum of $500, exclusive of costs, such citizen of another state, whether he be plaintiff or defendant, if he will make and file in such state court an affidavit stating that he has reason to, and does believe that, from prejudice or local influence, he will not be able to obtain justice in such state court, may, at any time before the final hearing or trial of the suit, file a petition in such state court,"
and have the suit removed to a federal court.
Under this act, the plaintiff, in September, 1868, petitioned the state court for the removal of the action to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Wisconsin, stating in his petition that he was at the time and had been for the three previous years a resident and citizen of the State of Illinois; that the defendant was a corporation organized under the laws of Wisconsin, and that the matter in dispute exceeded the sum of $500, exclusive of costs. The plaintiff also offered with his petition good and sufficient surety as required by the act of Congress for entering in the circuit court at its next session, copies of all process, pleadings, depositions, testimony, and other proceedings in the action and for doing such other appropriate acts as by the laws of the United States are required for the removal of a suit into the United States court. Accompanying this petition was the affidavit of the plaintiff that he had reasons to believe and did believe "that from prejudice and also from local influence" he would not be also to obtain justice in the state court.
The petition was resisted upon affidavits that the defendant was a corporation created and existing under the laws of the States of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan; that its line of railway was located and operated in part in each of these states, and was thus located and operated at the commencement of the action; that its entire line of railway was managed and controlled by the defendant as a single corporation; that all its powers and franchises were exercised
and its affairs managed and controlled by one board of directors and officers; that its principal office and place of business was at the City of Chicago in the State of Illinois, and that there was no office for the control or management of the general business and affairs of the corporation in Wisconsin.
The local state court granted the petition and ordered the removal of the action to the federal court, but directed a stay of proceedings upon its order to enable the defendant to appeal from it to the supreme court of the state, and provided that in case such appeal should be taken, all proceedings should be stayed until its determination.
The appeal was taken, and the order of removal was reversed by the supreme court. The reversal, as appears from the opinion of the court, was placed on the ground that the plaintiff, having the right originally to pursue his remedy either in a federal or state court, had made his election of the state court, and had thus waived the right to demand the judgment of the federal court upon the matter in controversy.
The plaintiff, however, did not regard the stay of proceedings or delay his action until the disposition of the appeal, but procured copies of the papers in the cause from the state court and filed them in the circuit court of the United States. The latter court thereupon took jurisdiction of the case and a new declaration was filed by the plaintiff.
In the meantime, the defendant, upon affidavit of the stay upon the order of removal made by the state court and of the appeal from such order, moved the circuit court that the cause be dismissed from its calendar and the pleadings and proceedings be stricken from its files. But this motion the court denied, and thereupon the defendant filed a plea in abatement setting forth an objection to the jurisdiction of the federal court founded upon the proviso to the statute of Wisconsin requiring the action for damages resulting from the death of a party to be brought in some court established by the constitution and laws of that state. A demurrer
to this plea being sustained, the defendant filed a plea of the general issue. Subsequently, upon the reversal of the order of removal by the supreme court of the state, the defendant moved the circuit court to remand the cause to the state court, but the circuit court refused to relinquish its jurisdiction, and the motion was denied.
The case having accordingly come up for trial, the facts appeared to be these:
The deceased died in December, 1864, from injuries received from a locomotive of the railroad company, defendant in the case, whilst she was endeavoring to cross its railway track in Academy Street in Janesville, Wisconsin. This street ran nearly north and south, and was crossed by four parallel railway tracks lying near each other and running in a direction from northeast to southwest. Two of these -- those on the northerly side -- belonged to the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien Railway Company, and the other two belonged to the defendant, the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company. One Mrs. Woodward and a Mr. Rice were standing, together with Mrs. Whitton (the deceased), just previous to the accident, upon the cross-walk on the northerly side of the tracks, waiting for a freight train of the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien Railway, then in motion, to pass eastwards so that they might proceed down the street and over the tracks. The weather was at the time extremely cold, and a strong wind was blowing up the tracks from the southwest, and snow was falling. As soon as the freight train had passed, Rive crossed the tracks, moving at a brisk rate. In crossing, he states that he took a look at the tracks and that he neither saw nor heard any engine on the tracks of the defendant. Almost immediately after getting across, and before he had gone many steps, he heard a scream, and on turning around saw that the women -- Mrs. Whitton and Mrs. Woodward -- had been knocked down by a locomotive of the defendant. This locomotive was at the time backing down in a westerly direction -- opposite to that taken by the freight train which had just passed -- the tender coming first, then the engine drawing a single freight car. The persons in this locomotive did not
appear to be aware of the injuries they had occasioned, and the locomotive continued on its course until their attention was called to the disaster by the efforts of Rice, when it was stopped. No person saw the locomotive strike the deceased or noticed her conduct after Rice left her and started to cross the tracks. The injuries which both of the women received resulted in their death. Mrs. Woodward died soon afterwards, and Mrs. Whitton after lingering some weeks. There was much conflict of evidence upon the point whether the bell was rung on the locomotive as it backed down the track and approached Academy Street, so as to give warning to persons who might be on that street wishing to cross, and was kept ringing until the locomotive and tender crossed the street. Rice testified that he did not hear any bell or signal from this train, but that the bell of the freight train which had passed was ringing.
Among other witnesses, the surgeon who attended Mrs. Whitton was examined, and of him the question was asked whether she was pregnant at the time of the accident. To this question objection was taken by the defendants as improper and immaterial, but the objection was overruled and exception taken. The witness answered that she was. The evidence being closed, the defendant asked nineteen different instructions, which the court refused to give except insofar as they were contained in the instructions whose substance is hereinafter mentioned and given of its own accord. Among the nineteen were these two:
"Under ordinary circumstances, a person possessing the use of those faculties should use both eyes and ears to avoid injury in crossing a railway track, and if in this case the wind and noise of the freight train tended to prevent Mrs. Whitton from hearing the approach of defendant's engine, she was under the greater obligation to use her eyes. It was her duty to look carefully along the tracks of defendant's railway, both northwardly and southwardly, before attempting to cross them, and it was not sufficient excuse for failing to do so that the day was cold and windy, or that one train had just passed on the track nearer to her. "
"It was the duty of Mrs. Whitton to look carefully along the tracks of defendant's railway to the north before putting herself in the way of danger, and in time to see and avoid any engine or train approaching from that direction. If necessary, in order to do this, it was her duty to pause before starting to cross until the freight train had so far passed as to give a sufficient view to determine whether she could safely cross; and if she failed to look carefully along these tracks to the north, after the freight train had so far passed as to give her such a view and in time to have seen and avoided defendant's engine, the plaintiff cannot recover."
The plaintiff asked three instructions, which were refused in the same way.
The questions submitted to the jury were:
"1. Whether Mrs. Whitton's death was caused by the negligence of those who had the management of the train, and,"
"2. Was Mrs. Whitton herself guilty of any fault or negligence which contributed to that result."
As to the negligence of the defendant, the court in substance instructed the jury that it was the duty of those having the management of the train to cause the bell of the engine to be rung a sufficient time before crossing Academy Street to give warning to any passengers on that street desirous of crossing, and to keep it ringing till the tender had crossed the street, and also that it was the duty of those having the management of the train to keep a proper and a vigilant lookout in the direction the train was moving, particularly under the circumstances of the case -- a freight train going up one of the tracks in an opposite direction, the train in question just approaching a much frequented street, and a violent southwest wind blowing at the time -- and that there was a peculiar vigilance incumbent on those who had the management of the train to ring their bell and keep a proper lookout because it was natural, if there were any persons standing at that crossing (a freight train passing along at the time) that they would seek to cross the track after the freight train had gone over the street.
As to the negligence of Mrs. Whitton, the court in substance
instructed the jury that she was required to exercise that degree of prudence, care, and caution incumbent on a person possessing ordinary reason and intelligence under the special circumstances of the case, having regard to the fact of its being a railroad crossing and another train crossing the street for which she had to wait in company with Mrs. Woodward, and that she must have used ordinary care, prudence, and caution.
The court declined to say to the jury how she must dispose of her limbs, her eyes, or her ears, but left it to the jury to find whether she had been guilty of any fault or negligence which contributed to her death, and instructed them that if she had, that the plaintiff could not recover, even if the defendant had been guilty of negligence.
The court also told the jury, before they could find a verdict against the defendant, they must be satisfied its employees were guilty of negligence, and that such negligence caused her death.
As to the damages, the court said:
"Those damages have been specified by the statute, but in very general terms:"
" The jury may give such damages, not exceeding $5,000, as they shall deem fair and just, in reference to the pecuniary injury resulting from such death, to the relatives of the deceased specified in this section."
"As we understand, that means that if the plaintiff is entitled to recover at all in this case, he is entitled to recover for damages for such pecuniary injury as has resulted to him from the death of his wife. It is confined by the language of the statute to pecuniary loss, not the loss arising from grief or wounded feelings, or sufferings of any kind, but such pecuniary loss as he has sustained from the death of his wife; it is from her death, not from any loss which he sustained prior to that, but for the pecuniary loss which he has sustained from her death. It is almost impossible to lay down any absolute, fixed rule upon this subject. This question has been recently discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States upon a statute which in this respect is essentially the same as the statute of this state, and the Supreme Court has said that it is a matter largely resting
with the sound reason and discretion of the jury. Taking all the facts and circumstances into consideration, you may consider the personal qualities, the ability to be useful of the party who has met with death, and, of course, also the capacity to earn money. It is not proper for the jury to look upon it simply as a question of feeling or sympathy. The statute does not permit that; all such considerations should be dismissed from your minds. It is a mere matter of dollars and cents -- so regarded by the statute -- pecuniary injury sustained."
The jury found $5,000 for the plaintiff, and a motion for a new trial being refused, after a full consideration of the objections made by the defendants, for which refusal the court gave its reasons fully, the judgment was entered on the verdict. To reverse that judgment, the defendant brought the case here.