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 Post subject: Erie Railroad Co. vs Tompkins
PostPosted: Sun Aug 22, 2010 2:57 pm 
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Joined: Thu Apr 02, 2009 7:16 pm
Posts: 479
Location: Anthracite Region of PA
By William C. Kashatus (Correspondent)
Published: August 22, 2010

In 1934, Harry Tompkins was walking along a footpath next to the Erie and Wyoming Valley Railroad lines when a train passed and an open door on a refrigerator car struck him. He was knocked under the train and his right arm was severed. After recovering from his injuries, Tompkins hired a lawyer and sued the Erie Railroad Co., setting the stage for a landmark Supreme Court case.

Railroads played a tremendous role in the marketing of anthracite coal. In the 1850s, George Scranton, an ironmaker, pooled the financial resources of his extended family and partnered with New York financiers to build railroad lines north into New York state. The resulting network linked northeast Pennsylvania with the Erie Railroad to the west and the Delaware River to the east connecting with rail lines serving the port of New York.

Within the decade, a consolidated DL&W Railroad emerged, stretching from the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys north through upstate New York to the Great Lakes and east through New Jersey to New York City. One of the routes along the Erie and Wyoming Valley line shipped coal from Wilkes-Barre through Pittston and Scranton into Waverly, N.Y. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, anthracite coal production was in decline and with it came the demise of rail freight transportation. Nevertheless, the railroad lines provided residents with access between towns. Well-trodden routes even had footpaths along the tracks, making it easy to avoid oncoming trains.

Tompkins made a habit of following the train tracks on his travels. It was convenient since the Erie and Wyoming Valley lines came to a dead end near his Hughestown home. But he never dreamed of becoming the subject of a personal injury case that would go to the highest levels of the United States justice system.

Since the train that struck him was owned by the Erie Railroad company, a New York corporation, Tompkins sued the railroad company in federal court for the Southern District of New York. He was seeking damages and injury, claiming that the footpath on which he was traveling was a "common walkway." However, the Erie Railroad claimed that it could not be held accountable for Tompkins' injuries because there were no local statutes regulating the matter and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had previously ruled that people traveling on a "common walkway" were considered trespassers.

A jury trial awarded Tompkins damages in the amount of $30,000. When Erie appealed the decision, the federal court of appeals affirmed the ruling on the grounds that it was free to adjudge according to general common law since there was no specific local statute. The railroad then petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari (i.e., a writ issued by a superior court for the re-examination of an action of a lower court), which was granted.

In "Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins" (1938), the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether federal judges should apply state law or federal "general law" where the parties to a lawsuit are from different states. Theodore Kiendl, the chief lawyer for Erie, argued that state law - not federal common law - should determine the responsibility of a railroad to pay damages to an injured private citizen. The Supreme Court agreed.

Writing for the court, Justice Louis Brandeis overruled the 96-year-old doctrine of "Swift v. Tyson" (1842), and held that there was no such thing as a "federal general common law" in cases involving diversity jurisdiction. In other words, federal courts cannot create federal common law without first looking within the states. Since no local statutes existed to regulate or govern Tompkins' specific situation, the federal courts must accept the local or state general common law.

As a result, the Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Appeals court decision on the grounds that the original Pennsylvania high court ruling must stand and Tompkins should be considered a trespasser.

"Erie Railroad v. Tompkins" also gave state high court rulings the same degree of importance as laws passed by state legislatures and solidified Brandeis's twin goals of strengthening the states and reversing the long-term trend toward centralization and bigness.

Today, Brandeis's ruling is known as the "Erie Doctrine" and requires federal courts to conduct a choice of law analysis, which generally requires that the courts apply the law of the state where the injury or transaction occurred.

William Kashatus teaches history at Luzerne County Community College. He can be contacted at

Scott K
"Watch Your Top"

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