Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins

Many wrongly claim this case abolished the common law and eradicated all cases prior to 1938. Not so.

The case revolved around a man, Tompkins, who was walking along a well-used footpath near a Pennsylvania railroad right-of-way, when a train passed by. An object protruding from one of the passing cars whacked Tompkins in the head.

The Erie Railroad company was incorporated in New York. Tompkins sued in federal court for damages and injury claiming the footpath was a common walkway. Erie claimed they owed no duty to Tompkins greater than that provided to any trespasser. Erie contended the matter should be adjudged according to Pennsylvania law, not New York, federal, or general common law. Erie contended that there were no local statutes regulating the matter and that the Pennsylvania supreme court had previously ruled that people on such footpaths should be considered trespassers, and thus, railroad companies not held accountable.

A jury trial awarded Tompkins $30,000 and the federal court of appeals affirmed; also contending that since there was no specific local statute, the federal court was then free to adjudge according to general common law. That is, the federal court was free to create federal common law.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed and stated that federal courts cannot create federal common law without first looking within the states. Since no local statutes existed to regulate or govern the specific situation at hand, the federal courts must then accept the local or state general common law. Thus the original Pennsylvania high court ruling must stand (and Tompkins should be considered a trespasser). The Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Appeals court decision.

Regarding those people who contend this case rendered obsolete all cases prior to 1938, the Supreme Court simply stated that if any previous federal court relied on any assumed federal common law, or attempted to create federal common law without first exhausting state law, that perhaps those cases should not be relied upon for precedence. Justice Brandeis, delivering the majority opinion, stated, “I am aware that what has been termed the general law of the country—which is often little less than what the judge advancing the doctrine thinks at the time should be the general law on a particular subject—has been often advanced in judicial opinions of this court to control a conflicting law of a state. I admit that learned judges have fallen into the habit of repeating this doctrine as a convenient mode of brushing aside the law of a state in conflict with their views. And I confess that, moved and governed by the authority of the great names of those judges, I have, myself, in many instances, unhesitatingly and confidently, but I think now erroneously, repeated the same doctrine.”

In other words, if federal judges in previous cases had created federal common law from the bench instead of applying the correct federal statute, or if no federal statute existed, then applying the correct state statutes or state common law, that people should not rely upon those cases. Such a statement hardly negates cases prior to 1938, but only provides a potential cloud around them, depending, of course, upon the actual ruling.

Full text: Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938)

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