Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins
304 U.S. 64, S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938)
Tompkins was walking along the
railroad tracks in Pennsylvania when he was hit by an open railcar door.
Tompkins brought a lawsuit in Federal Court in New York against the Erie
Railroad for personal injuries.
Under Pennsylvania common
law, where the accident occurred, the railroad owed no duty to Tompkins
(he was trespassing).
So according to
Pennsylvania law, Tompkins would have to show that they deliberately ran
him over, which is a high standard to meet, and Tompkins probably
There was no explicit
Statute in Pennsylvania codifying the law.
Instead of suing in a
Pennsylvania State Court, Tompkins noted that Erie was incorporated in New
York. As a Pennsylvania resident, Tompkins sued in Federal Court on diversity
The Federal Trial Court found
for Tompkins and awarded damages. Erie appealed.
Under the Federal common
law, the railroad had a duty to take care, so Tompkins didn't have to
show that Erie deliberately ran him over.
Basically, in the Federal
court, Pennsylvania common law did not apply.
Erie unsuccessfully argued
that under Judiciary Act § 34
(what is now 28 USC § 1652),
the Federal Court was bound to use Pennsylvania common law as the basis
for their decision.
The Federal Appellate Court
affirmed the Trial Court. Erie appealed.
The US Supreme Court reversed
The US Supreme Court found
that Federal courts did not have the power to make up general Federal
common law when hearing State law claims under diversity jurisdiction.
This is now known as the Erie
So basically, the Court
found that when you are suing in a Federal court, you have to use the
State's common law, so Tompkins would have to prove the same elements in
Federal court that he would have to prove if he had brought the case in a
Pennsylvania State court.
With this decision the Court
overturned almost a century of Federal civil procedure law, and
established the current standard for diversity jurisdiction in Federal courts.
The previous standard was
that the laws of the several States
included only State Statutes.
That meant Federal judges
were free to ignore a State's common law and substitute their own rules.
(See Swift v. Tyson (41 U.S. 1 (1842)))
With this case, the Court overturned
Swift, calling it, "an
unconstitutional assumption of power by the Courts of the United
§1652 currently says, "The laws of the several
States, except where the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United
States otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of
decision in trials at common law, in the courts of the United States, in
cases where they apply."
Note that the Erie Doctrine only applied to substantive laws, not procedural laws.
Procedural laws are usually minor things like what size paper
should be used for motions and when to take lunch.
One of the most important procedural
laws is the Statute of
But look at Guaranty
Trust Co. v. York (326 U.S. 9
(1945)), where it was held that the Erie Doctrine can
apply to some procedural laws
One interesting piece of
trivia about this case is that it's the only one where the US Supreme
Court declared something unconstitutional, but never bothered to cite the
constitution! It's unclear from the ruling what part of the Constitution
It's assumed they found it
was a violation of the 10th Amendment.
There is one exemption to the Erie
Doctrine. When the United States is a
party to a case, they do not follow State law, they are bound by Federal
law. When there is no Federal Statute, you can use Federal common law.
Part of this decision was
probably because West came out with their Keynote system. Prior to West,
most people thought that common law was mostly the same from State to
State, but after West, it was pretty obvious that States differed greatly
in their interpretation of common law.