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  1. Issue


What was the applicable law in regard to this matter, where the matter in dispute occurred in Pennsylvania, and the rail road company had been registered in New York. Therefore, the issue was whether federal common law should be applied over state rules, in this case Pennsylvania laws, in suits of diversity of citizenship.

  1. Background of the case


The plaintiff Mr. Tompkins, a citizen of Pennsylvania, complained in a Southern New York Federal court. His complain was that he had been injured by a passing train, while he was on his way home, after being dropped by his friend at night. He was walking  on a commonly used footpath adjacent to the rail road belonging to Erie railroad company, a company registered in the state of New York, and an object protruding outwards from what looked liked the railcar’s door struck him, knocking him down. His arms were crashed beneath the car’s doors (Erie 33).

The ground for diversity of citizenship allowed the plaintiff to invoke ‘Jurisdiction’ on the New York federal court. At the lower court, the issues were whether the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the proximity course of the injury. The plaintiffs claim was that the defendant violated his right by hauling the car’s doors at him. The defendant on his part argued that, he had not in any way violated any of the plaintiff’s rights and that the injury to the plaintiff was caused by his own negligence (Erie 34).

The defendants denied liability arguing that the duty owed to Tompkins was not greater than that owed to a trespasser. According to them, the Liability borne by Tompkins should be determined according to Pennsylvanian law as allowed by Section 34 of the United States’ Federal Judiciary Act. On his part, Tompkins argument was that, ordinary negligence standards should be applied as required by Federal common law (Erie 34).

The lower court decided in favor of Tompkins, where he was awarded $ 30000 by the jury. On appeal, the decision was upheld. The defendants petitioned the court for a stay of Certiorari. The stay was granted to the railway company until the court could come up with a decision.

  1. Rule of law


Long before this case was brought forth, there had been an exceptionally clear law regarding the matter at hand. Section 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act provided that; the several state’s law shall only be applicable in a common law trial  in making the decision, except where it is otherwise required or provided by the United States Constitution, treaties or statutes, United States courts or in applicable cases. Justice Story had argued that, if truly interpreted, Section 34 would have been limited to states law only, meaning that the section is not to be applied to questions of a more general nature, but to  permanent things such as, real estate and other forms of immovable property (Erie 34).

In that regard, Swift v Tyson case established a doctrine by holding that, unwritten law of the highest court of the state need not be applied in federal courts. In matters relating to diversity of jurisdiction, federal courts have the freedom to pass an independent judgment in regards to how the states common law is or should be applied. The states laws and decision whether written or unwritten should be applied in Federal courts, which exercise diversity of citizenship.

Common law rules, which are substantive, should not be applied in states, whether they are local or general. No congressional power is borne in wanting to declare the rules applicable. In addition, it is not a matter of federal concern that a legislative or statutory declaration is used.

  1. Analysis

Before this case, the rule earlier set forth by Swift v Tyson had aimed at promoting uniformity in the law. However, it had done the opposite by undermining the practice and administration of laws within the states. The doctrine had enhanced the practice of forum shopping; this in effect, had led to the law not provide equal protection to all citizens of the United States. One state’s citizens could move to the next state to look for more favorable law and according to Justice Brandeis, the defect was substantial and was not beneficial.

The application of the doctrine set in Swift v Tyson had shown political and social defects, more so the benefits expected to accrue from the rule failed to flow. The application of section 34 had created doubt and the soundness of the rule established by Swift v Tyson (Erie 34).

It was clear that Tompkins was forum shopping when he decided to take his case to New York, even though he was a resident of Pennsylvania and the accident having happened in Pennsylvania. The court ruled that continuing the use of the rule set out in Swift v Tyson was a whopping discrimination against the citizens by the non citizens.

The court ruled that no federal ‘general’ law existed. The applicable law in any case is the state’s law, whether the matter is governed by an Act of Congress or the Federal Constitution. The court thus disapproved the doctrine set in Swift v Tyson. However, Section 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act was not held unconstitutional. The court disapproved the use of the doctrine for invading rights reserved for several states by the constitution.

In coming up with the Erie’s decision, the ruling in this case overturned the earlier set rule in Swift v Tyson. Justice Brandeis stated that, federal courts had no power to create Federal Common Law. He further stated that, following the doctrine set in Swift v Tyson, was allowing the United States courts to usurp powers not granted to them by the Constitution.

  1. Conclusion


The decision in Swift had violated the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, by stealing powers conferred to the states; and in addition, as noted by Justice Brandeis, Fourteenth Amendment equal protection laws had been breached. Thus the perfect opportunity had presented itself for the court to correct this long held decision.

Erie’s doctrine brought the results that, the Federal courts were supposed to apply a state’s law in which they were sitting in. Obviously, this decision brought a lot of difficulties to the decisions that the courts had previously taken, meaning that all those law were no longer valid. Erie v Tompkins established the law of diversity of jurisdiction which applies today to Federal courts. In the process, Erie changed almost a century of case law dedicated to civil procedure in the United States.

The court had made an error in coming up with the decision in Swift v Tyson and, therefore, this new decision of Erie v Tompkins gave the right opportunity to correct this mistake. After the decision in Black & White Taxicab v. Brown & Yellow Taxicab, criticism against Swift v Tyson doctrine became widespread. In the above case, the doctrine set in Swift v Tyson was upheld by the Western Kentucky court.

It is pertinent to note that this decision goes against the tremendously momentous doctrine of Stare Decisis. It should be noted that, in a case where the Federal government is a party, it is exempted from the Erie doctrine and instead it is bound by Federal Law or Federal Common Law in the absence of a statute.

The decision to correct the previous decision of Swift v Tyson was correct; however, the court also ruled that the privy section remains correct as originally enacted. Justice Holmes stated that, the court should not be hesitant in correcting the unconstitutionality of the taking over of power by the courts; however much, time had lapsed since it was decided.

The judges were clearly engaged in ‘judicial activism’ as noted by James McRenolds and Butler in their dissenting opinions. They also noted that the validity of the long adhered decision of Swift v Tyson had not been challenged by any of the parties.



Work Cited

“Erie v Tompkins”, Supreme Court of the United States 304 U.S. 64 1938.print